Saturday, November 14, 2009

NEWMAN'S OWN

November 5, 2009

In one sense, it's all about sex. In another, it's not about sex at all.
On October 20, Cardinal William Levada, prefect of the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, announced that the Roman Catholic Church would provide a unique home for Anglican converts, a "personal ordinariate" — in effect, a separate "Anglican rite" similar to the Catholic Eastern rites, allowing them to retain their own liturgical practices, parish structures, and married clergy. They would, of course, be obliged to accept the totality of Catholic doctrine and recognize the pope as their chief shepherd.
Cardinal Levada explained that this initiative had come in response to requests by traditionalist Anglican groups to enter the Catholic Church while "preserving elements of their distinctive Anglican spiritual patrimony."
Though he did not mention it, the principal reason for the traditionalists' movement to Rome is their objection to the Anglican Church's ordination of women as priests and bishops. To many both inside and outside the Anglican Communion, this seems like just another example of misogyny, and in some cases it probably is. But underlying the controversy is a significant theological issue: the role of tradition in the Christian faith.
If many Anglicans turn to Rome, it will not be the first time. In 1845, Anglican clergyman John Henry Newman converted to Catholicism. For over a decade, he and a group of other theologians at Oxford University had undertaken a systematic study of the traditions of the Christian churches. Examining the writings of the early Fathers, they concluded that the Roman and Orthodox churches had maintained an unbroken link with the ancient Church in doctrine and liturgical practice. They came to believe, as Newman put it, that Catholicism in its broad sense was "a real religion — not a mere opinion" as he found so much of Anglican preaching and theology to be, "but an external objective substantive creed and worship."
Through their publications and preaching, these first "Anglo-Catholics" encouraged their church to reject the Protestant evangelical model dominant since Elizabethan times and reshape it on the orthodox model, following its traditions of belief, hierarchical structure, and ritualized worship while retaining its independence and distinctive features such as the Book of Common Prayer and married clergy.
This "Oxford Movement," as it came to be called, faced vociferous opposition from the established Church of England, forcing Newman and many of his colleagues reluctantly to abandon it and be received by Rome.
The conversions continued for well over a century, mostly among intellectuals, and for similar reasons as Newman's. G. K. Chesterton embraced Catholicism in 1922 at age 48, asserting that it was the only "creed that could not be satisfied with a truth, but only with the Truth, which is made of a million such truths and yet is one." Graham Greene, many of whose novels are extended meditations on the paradox of saintly sinners, converted at the behest of his wife and rarely practiced the faith, but was "convinced by specific arguments in the probability of its creed."
In America, Thomas Merton, who was baptized a Catholic while a grad student at Columbia in the 1930's and then became a Trappist monk, wrote about his initial contact with Catholicism in his autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain: "How clear and solid the doctrine was: ... you felt the full force not only of Scripture but of centuries of a unified and continuous and consistent tradition."
It was this "Catholic Synthesis," a comprehensive worldview that integrated faith and reason, history and contemporaneity, that attracted these thinkers troubled by a purposeless, fragmented modernity.
James Joyce, who gave up on Catholicism in his youth, ironically summarized this attraction in his autobiographical novel, Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. When Stephen Dedalus, tormented by religious doubt, is asked by his friend Cranley if he was thinking of becoming a Protestant, he replies: "I said that I had lost the faith, not that I had lost self- respect. What kind of liberation would that be to forsake an absurdity which is logical and coherent and to embrace one which is illogical and incoherent?"
Those Anglicans seeking union with Rome today come with convictions much like Newman's — that the traditions of the Church rank alongside Scripture as windows to God's revelation. The male clergy is part of that tradition.
However, there is another aspect of Newman's thought that eventually may come into play: that the tradition is not static but develops, and that the development is articulated by the Church's bishops gathered in ecumenical council. There may well be some traditionalist Anglicans, soon to align with Rome, who desire the ordination of women but believe that it must be accomplished collegially, as every other clarification of doctrine has been since apostolic times.
The infusion of Anglo-Catholics into the Roman Church may hasten a doctrinal development among Catholics and Orthodox that is long overdue.
And of this, Newman would surely be proud.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

TERM-LIMIT TURMOIL

October 22, 2009

Michael Bloomberg, Mayor of New York City, occupies a paradoxical position in the polls as the November 3 election approaches. The latest survey, conducted by Quinnipiac University last month, found that 69 percent of likely voters approve of his performance but only 52 percent intend to vote for him.
It's not that his Democratic opponent, city comptroller William Thompson, presents an even better alternative — the same survey found that 44 percent of voters "don't know enough about him to form an opinion." It's that a year ago, Bloomberg shepherded a bill through the City Council to modify a referendum passed by voters in 1993 limiting all elected officials to two four-year terms. The mayor and his supporters lengthened the limit to three terms, arguing that the economic crisis demanded "continuity of leadership." The legislation gave Bloomberg a third shot at mayor and 35 two-term Council incumbents a windfall opportunity to hold on to their seats for another four years.
They never realized what a backlash of resentment their action would cause. Bloomberg's been good for the city, people are saying, but I won't vote for him because he trampled on the will of the people. Who does he think he is, a king? In perhaps the most radical slap, the Spanish-language paper El Diariocompared him to Venezuela's president Hugo Chávez, whose attempt to tamper with the term limit was defeated in a referendum: "New Yorkers," it editorialized, "were not even given that chance."
If there were no term-limits law in the first place, Bloomberg would have had no problem at all: He's been the quintessential New York mayor — on the spot in every emergency, creative and effective in his policies, takes the subway to work. Even in this overwhelmingly Democratic town, voters would have elected him, once a Republican and now an independent, enthusiastically. He'll still get elected — Thompson has been unable to get traction — but many citizens will pull the lever reluctantly, with his manipulative behavior sticking in their craw and his reputation for integrity sullied. The third term will not be like the other two.
Such is the paradox of term limits. On one hand, don't limits short-circuit the democratic process, preventing voters from endorsing or repudiating their officials at the ballot box? And on the other hand, shouldn't public office be not a career but a temporary calling, a work demanded of an array of competent citizens who, like Cincinnatus in ancient Rome, would serve as needed and then speedily return to private life?
In the first instance, the problem is that it's not all that easy to "t'row da bums out." Politicians, even the worst of them, easily become entrenched in office, amassing huge war-chests that make opposition almost impossible and relying on the complacency of an electorate that would rather vote for a devil they know.
Alternatively, too-short term limits put office-holders in a revolving door; as they go in and out, the business of the public is left in the hands of bureaucrats and lobbyists, the only ones maintaining "continuity." Furthermore, as the California legislature's experience with severe term limits show, there are few Cincinnati among the politically driven — rather than returning to the plow, they just plow ahead from one office to another.
Plus, there are many creative ways to get around term limits — nepotism, for example. Here in the South Bronx, when Councilman Wendell Foster was forced to relinquish his 24-year sinecure, his daughter Helen stepped right in and was handily elected. After two terms herself, she was delighted to vote for Bloomberg's proposal; with no significant opposition, she'll extend her career on the Council for another four years.
Actually, a 12-year term limit might in fact be the best, or least worst, of both worlds. My own sense is that eight years is the turning-point for politicians: Either they've hit their stride and deserve more time, or they've hashed things up enough for voters to decide for themselves to get rid of them. After 12 years, most of these ducks are pretty lame on their own account and should be mercifully retired, like it or not.
The New York state legislature is as dysfunctional as California's, but for exactly the opposite reason: an insularity that results in immobility. In the Assembly, for example, almost half of the 106 members have been there two decades or longer, feathering their nests. A 12-year limit would help break the stranglehold of the old and liberate the legislature for productive work.
So despite the uproar, extending the term limit in New York City may be ultimately beneficial, giving voters the opportunity to have a positive say on third-term candidates while capping their tenure at a reasonable time.
Whether Mayor Bloomberg emerges unscathed, however, remains to be seen.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

TAKE ALL THE TREES . . .



October 1, 2009

"A tree museum?" I laughed into the phone one day last April. "Are you going to charge the people a dollar and a half just to see 'em?"
"Of course not," the young woman said, sounding half offended. "It's free. It's an art project along the Grand Concourse this summer. We're marking a hundred trees with medallions on the sidewalk that identify the tree and give a phone extension. When people stop at one, they'll call the extension from their cell phones and get a one-minute narration. Would you like to do one on bees?"
Please!
Some time later, I got a call from the woman's boss, an Irish artist named Katie Holten, who conceived the installation and named it the Tree Museum.
"I'm trying to get Joni Mitchell to come to our grand opening in June," she told me, "but it doesn't look like she'll make it."
She'd have loved it.
The Tree Museum is part of a year-long celebration of the centennial of the Grand Concourse, a five-mile thoroughfare running from the base of the Bronx at 138th Street northeast to the Mosholu Parkway. Today it's a heavy traffic corridor, speckled with stop lights annoying to drivers and meaningless to pedestrians. I've driven up and down it for years, heedless of its history and its charms. It took the Tree Museum to make me walk the length of it over two warm autumn days last week, strolling past kids playing handball against apartment-house walls, Dominicans doing dominoes on folding tables, bodegas blaring Latin music — and pausing at the medallions, calling the extensions, and contemplating the sights described in the narrations. As with any good indoor exhibit, this museum-without- walls opens your eyes to things you'd never noticed before.
Katie Holten designed the audio guide to represent a cross- section of the Concourse community. She tracked down historians, architects, geologists, environmentalists, urban farmers, hip-hop artists, poets, musicians, elderly reminiscers and teenage gardeners to contribute. There's even some kid telling the world why he hates the Yankees (stop #94). Many of the trees (there are 24 species represented) are just convenient spots for hearing about other features of the neighborhood.
For my own talk (#42), I stuck to the tree theme, choosing a copse of little-leaf lindens shading a tiny park at 170th Street, about a mile northwest of my beehives, noting that lindens are a major nectar source in May and June, attracting clouds of bees and yielding a distinctive light and minty honey.
While narrations like my own were sometimes interesting, it was those on history and architecture that kept me walking and dialing.
The northernmost tree (#100, a cottonwood), for example, stands in an attentively-kept garden which in the 1980's neighbors planted on the site of an abandoned gas station. They named it for Louis Risse, an Alsatian immigrant and urban planner who in 1890 proposed a "Grand Boulevard and Concourse" as New York City's Champs-Élysées. When it opened in 1909, it was indeed grand: a 60-yard-wide, tree-shaded, unpaved promenade with lanes for carriages, bicycles, and pedestrians, slicing through farmland and village, providing Manhattanites direct access to the wilds of Van Cortlandt Park to the west and the exotic animals and plants at the zoo and botanical garden in Bronx Park to the east.
When the Jerome Avenue elevated train opened parallel to the Concourse in 1917 (##74-76, 80), the farms and orchards were quickly bought up by developers, and soon thousands of families, mostly Jews and Italians escaping the teeming tenements of the Lower East Side, moved in to sparkling new apartments along the route.
From the 1920's through the 1950's, the Concourse was the place to be, and many of the talks at the trees describe the monumental edifices dating from that era. Ruth and his Yankees built their house a few blocks west in 1923 (#21, narrated by Bernie Williams), and the elegant Concourse Plaza Hotel went up the same year (#23). The opulent Loew's Paradise Theatre made its debut in 1929 (#69). Many of the apartment buildings were magnificent specimens of Art Deco design (#97, narrated by architect Daniel Libeskind). Jewish congregations erected massive stone synagogues (#58). Banks built their temples to mammon (#74). The Bronx County Courthouse (#20) and the Central Post Office (#7), striking examples of moderne architecture adorned with social-realist art, were constructed by the WPA during the early years of the Depression.
In the 1960's, things began to slide, a history not often mentioned at the trees. As the city razed slums in Manhattan, thousands of people were forced to relocate. Poor Blacks and Puerto Ricans poured into the Bronx; long-time residents grew frightened and fled. By the mid-1970's, the Bronx was burning, the Concourse Hotel and many once-elegant apartment buildings were abandoned and taken over by squatters and crack-cookers. The Paradise Theatre was boarded up — there may even have been plans to pave the Paradise and put up a parking lot.
You don't know what you've got till it's almost gone ....
In the 1990's, after 30 years of decline and devastation, the Grand Concourse, like the Bronx as a whole, began turning around. Historic buildings, including the Paradise, have been saved and restored; dark and dangerous parks are now illuminated and manicured; and the boulevard itself is being renewed with classic lighting and thick plantings of trees, shrubs and flowers in the medians.
And oh yes, Joni: The big yellow taxis, whose drivers fearfully used to refuse fares from Manhattan into the Bronx, are starting to ply the Concourse again.
The Tree Museum installation will be open till October 12, when the medallions will be pried from the sidewalk and the phone line shut down. I think Katie Holten's idea is so stimulating and informative that it should survive in some permanent fashion, perhaps with markers in front of historic sites and an audio guide — a walking museum of the Grand Concourse.

For more information on the Tree Museum, visit the website, www.treemuseum.org. For a map of the stops, click on "What" and "Visitors Guide." For the audio guide, call 718-408-2501 and choose an extension.

Friday, September 18, 2009

CLOTHING AS COMMENTARY


Consider the pant-suits of Hillary Clinton and the fluff- skirts of Sarah Palin. Think of the major-general and the monk. Clothes aren't just coverings, they're extensions of one's personality and politics. They tell you at first glance that this woman in the flannel shirt and faded jeans is an organic gardener and a single-payer advocate, or that this man in the tweedy coat and bow-tie is a professor of economics, Keynesian.

Clothes are moving works of art; their frames are inside, not out, and their museum is the world.

Fashion designers are artists in their own right, but there's another group of practitioners, the art-for-art's-sake type, that make not fashion statements but statements about fashion.

Their work is what you see in Dress Codes: Clothing as Metaphor, an exhibit running through October 4 at the Katonah Museum of Art in Katonah, N.Y., 50 miles northeast of New York City. Coordinated by guest curator Barbara J. Bloemink, 36 contemporary artists use dress to comment on politics, religion, national tragedies, and, so to say, the social fabric.

Take, for example, the latest controversial article of clothing, the chador, that head-to-toe covering worn by conservative Muslim women. Mella Jaarsma's version of the garment in "The Follower" (2002) is a colorful pastiche of shoulder- patches from organizations in her native Indonesia — a symbol, one guesses, of unity in diversity. In a 2004 work, Iranian-born Farhad Moshiri puts a plain black chador in a clear plastic package like a 99¢-store tablecloth, stapling a cardboard strip at the top with the cartoon head of a shrouded woman, only her languid eyes exposed, and some conventional promotional slogans: "CHADOR — the protector of inner beauty, with sporty sophistication — exotic — Mysterious — Shocking — As seen on TV." Tradition meets mass-marketing.

"Vigilante" (2003) by the fittingly-named duo of Alain Guerra and Neraldo de la Paz (calling themselves Guerra de la Paz) is a kind of military version of the chador — an eight-foot- tall stuffed camouflage suit enveloping head and face and dribbling down in four serpentine legs to the floor, intimidating and anonymous.

Not surprisingly, many of the pieces dwell on the exploitation of women by fashion. In "Thinner than You" (1990), Maureen Connor has created a gauzy black strapless evening gown in a size so surrealistically slender it could only fit a Giacometti sculpture. Most blatant is Kate Kretz's "Defense Mechanism Coat" (2001), a wool garment with red velvet collar and lining embroidered with a schematic of a body's arteries and veins, and the outside bristling with 150 pounds of rusty roofing nails. Perhaps a bit of anger there?

Two works in the show are particularly fascinating because of the stories behind them. According to the description on the wall, Zoë Sheehan Saldaña went to her Wal-Mart store in Hartford, Conn., on May 26, 2005, bought a Jordache sheer camp shirt colored "Lucky Lime" for $9.87, took it home, and made a look- alike version on her sewing machine. She transferred the labels and tags from the original, photographed her shirt, and brought it to the store, placing it on the same rack the original had come from. On the museum wall, framed, are the store-bought shirt and a print of her copy, enlarged to size. She performs this exercise frequently — "shop-dropping," she calls it — as a surreptitious protest against the "appalling labor conditions" of third-world clothing manufacture. What some unsuspecting buyer gets is a unique garment, lovingly hand-made in the USA.

Related in theme is the "Labels Project Sculpture" (2008) by Luca Pizzaroni. This is a "ready-made" — a collection of shirts, pants, and coats on a circular rack, at first glance a dull parody of mass-market clothing. Atop it, however, is a sign declaring "Clothing Browsing is Permitted," followed by a list of the 193 recognized nations of the world, most in black lettering, a few in red. Reading the explanation on the wall, you understand his "project": it's to acquire an article of clothing from every country, identified by the "MADE IN _____" tag sewn inside. Clothing browsing, I found from personal experience, becomes addictive; I must have spent half an hour at it. There's a Banana Republic sport shirt from Zimbabwe, an Eddie Bauer tee from Burma, a High Sierra woman's top from Brunei, a Van Heusen sport from Mongolia — on and on, 172 countries in all. Who knew? Missing from the rack are only 21, the red ones on the sign, including Iraq and Rwanda and excluding Palestine, which the artist notes is not a "recognized country." His purpose, he writes, is "to foster communication and broader cultural understanding by exposing and informing our instincts about brand." It's a work in progress; like every obsessive collector, he continues to search for the remaining items to complete his set.

It's ironic that the exhibit ends on October 4, St. Francis' Day. Back in the thirteenth century, Francis used clothing as metaphor himself, doffing his wealthy finery in the public square of Assisi and standing naked to vow his life to Lady Poverty.

That was a fashion statement if there ever was one.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

HEALTH CARE AS JUSTICE

September 17, 2009

The most moving part of Barack Obama's speech to Congress and the country on health care last week was his tribute to Ted Kennedy. He quoted from a letter the ailing senator had written in May, to be delivered after his death. "What we face," Kennedy wrote, "is above all a moral issue; at stake are not just the details of policy, but fundamental principles of social justice and the character of our country."
Obama went on to say that "part of the American character" is "a recognition that we are all in this together; that when fate turns against one of us, others are there to lend a helping hand," and that "sometimes government has to step in to deliver on that promise."
A major disappointment in Obama's approach to health care is that he has never framed the debate specifically in terms of moral principle and collective responsibility. He has used morality as a rhetorical device, as he did in this speech, but has never made a compelling philosophical argument that medical care is a basic human and civil right that demands a unified national commitment and the sacrifice of individual interest for the common good. Doing so would have changed the very nature of the debate, calling on legislators and the public to account for their various positions in ethical terms.
The fundamental moral question is: Is care for those who are sick part of the Constitution's pledge that "we the people of the United States" will "promote the general welfare," right along with ensuring domestic tranquility, providing for the common defense, and securing the blessings of liberty? Common sense would surely say so. When the country is threatened by swine flu, doesn't the federal government have the obligation to muster all of its resources, financial and technical, to combat and prevent it? Virtually no one would argue otherwise. Are not infant mortality, whose rate in this country is among the highest of all developed nations, and the thousands of needless deaths for lack of care to the uninsured and denial of care by insurance companies just a slower, institution-caused pandemic?
Is making money off the sick morally wrong? Aren't doctors and hospitals care-givers rather than businesses? Shouldn't insurance companies be simply risk-sharers, not profit centers? Denial of coverage for a woman with breast cancer, Obama lamented in his speech, "is heart-breaking, it is wrong, and no one should be treated that way in the United States of America." And yet, he said, "insurance executives don't do this because they are bad people. They do it because it's profitable" — strangely implying that profit is a good in every case. A law compelling all insurance companies to return to their roots as non-profit collectives would be an important step towards health-care justice.
Is health care a privilege reserved only to American citizens? "There are also those who claim that our reform efforts will insure illegal immigrants," Obama stated. "This too is false — the reforms I'm proposing would not apply to those who are here illegally." The "You lie!" blurt by Representative Joe Wilson of South Carolina only called attention to a moral contradiction. Health care is a universal human need. Denying coverage to illegals is not only morally inconsistent, it undermines the nation's collective health. Doesn't the good health of every person living in this country enhance the good health of all? The president himself noted that emergency-room care, mandated as a social obligation to the uninsured and to the illegal, adds "a hidden and growing tax" of $1,000 per insured person per year. Would it not simply be better, both morally and practically, to provide equal care to all human beings living in this country without scrutinizing their papers?
In his 1933 inaugural address on the economic crisis, Franklin Roosevelt saw the solution in "our interdependence on each other; that we can not merely take but we must give as well; that if we are to go forward, we must move as a trained and loyal army willing to sacrifice for the good of a common discipline." The situation is similar with health care today.
"I am not the first president to take up this cause," Obama stated at the beginning of his speech, "but I am determined to be the last."
As long as the fundamental principles of social justice, rather than the details of policy, are not addressed, his solution will only be an interim one.
With audacity, I hope he won't be the last.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

CAMPING IN CONTRASTS



September 10, 2009

Summer in the Northeast this year wasn't summer. June and July were the rainiest on record, and the coolest. The highs in July never once hit 90, a first for usually sweltering New York City. Crops in urban gardens were slow to grow, and the summer honey production from my beehives has been dismal; it rained so much that the bees had to stay inside just when the flowerings were at their peak. August turned typical, hot and insufferably humid, with almost-daily thunderstorms, but last week, the first one of September, was at long last perfect: dry and warm, with the pastel sunlight of approaching fall.
I try to go tent-camping in regional parks every summer, and here was my first real window of opportunity all season long. I chose the Ward Pound Ridge Reservation, over 4,000 acres of woodland, meadow, and rocky promontories in northeast Westchester County, just 45 miles from the teeming Bronx.
It's a remarkable place. Once a farming and lumbering area, the land for the park was acquired by the county piecemeal from 1926 through 1938. In an act of astounding foresight, long-time local Republican boss William L. Ward persuaded the politicians to trump developers who'd planned to bulldoze the site for housing tracts. The various parcels were bought up for a final total of $400,000. Led by a group of ecologists long before that word was invented, the parks department began a carefully- considered restoration and reforestation project. In 1933, they found a fortuitous ally in the Civilian Conservation Corps, Franklin Roosevelt's youth-employment program. For five years, hundreds of gung-ho young workers cleared land, tore down abandoned houses and barns, and planted half a million native trees. They forged hiking trails on the old wagon roads, carved out picnic grounds, and constructed 24 three-sided camping shelters out of local stone, topped with sturdy lumber roofs. The foundations of the CCC base camp, which once housed 200, are still visible today.
The shelters are a camper's dream. They're not just protection — any old wooden lean-to will do that. They're your own miniature castle, complete with fireplace and chimney. They're a wonder in the afternoon thunderstorms that regularly sweep through the area in summer. You watch the drama of wind and rain and lightning-flash from your dry and cozy fortress, your private theater. None of the misery of the soggy tent here.
The hiking ranges from easy to challenging, made the better because each trail has a fascinating natural or historical objective. Near the park entrance is the old cemetery of the town of Pound Ridge, with grave markers dating from the mid-1700's. Further on are the stone walls of a once-bustling grist and cider mill and its water-race off the Cross River. Deep in the forest is the Bear Rock petroglyph, the clear image of a reclining bear etched by the Lenape or Delaware Indians possibly as early as 2500 B.C.
Surely the most intriguing to the imagination is the Leatherman's Cave, one of the many dwellings of a mysterious mute hermit who appeared in the locality in 1860 and walked a precise circuit of 300 miles around Connecticut and New York, round and round for almost 30 years, dressed in a hand-sewn leather coat and breeches and begging food at farmhouses. His route was so exacting that farmers' wives would mark his upcoming arrival on their calendars and have a nice hot meal waiting for him when he appeared. Legend has it that he was a French or French-Canadian leatherworker who was jilted by his employer's daughter and went mad, fleeing to New York to walk off his grief. Sounds like a legend, doesn't it?
The curious thing about this park is that during the week, even in summer, it is practically deserted. You'd think that of the tens of millions of people in the metropolis, there'd be more than enough to keep the place full. But there aren't, and that's fine enough for me.
Pound Ridge is hardly in a wilderness. Just outside the reservation is a nice shopping center with a big supermarket for stocking up your cooler. A few miles on either side are the Aldrich Museum of Contemporary Art in Ridgefield, Conn., and the Katonah Museum in tony Katonah, N.Y., where Martha Stewart has a country home. Also nearby is Caramoor, an expansive Mediterranean-style estate from the 1930's that now hosts an impressive array of musical performances in its outdoor amphitheater from May through November.
With the chill of autumn closing in, a few days at Pound Ridge puts a beautiful seal on the summer.

Monday, August 31, 2009

OUTSTANDING

















September 3, 2009
It must be nice: Spend your summers traveling around the country, sampling the finest regional wines, eating the best locally-grown meats, cheeses, and vegetables prepared by the best local chefs, chatting it up with vintners, small farmers, and swooning gourmands. And make a living from it too.
Such is the life of Jim Denevan and the crew of Outstanding in the Field, a moveable feast that has delighted the palates of thousands of people from California to Maine for a decade. If you've got 200 bucks and the foresight to book your reservation months in advance, you'll have a dining experience you'll never forget. Jim has sixty of those every season.

It must be nice.

Last Sunday afternoon, a couple hundred folks came to La Plaza Cultural, a block-long community garden in the East Village, for something to eat and drink. After a glass or two of brut-brut Chardonnay champagne from Wolffer Estate Vineyards on Long Island and hors d'oeuvres of heirloom cherry tomatoes skewered with fresh mozzarella and basil, the group gathers around Jim, six-foot-four with straw hat on head and wine glass in hand, who tells of his adventures on the culinary road and of what to expect today. He's followed by Beatriz Arremony, a lithe and lovely cheesemonger whose husband Dennis is president of the garden's association, who relates the story of La Plaza, which twenty years ago was a drug-infested vacant lot and now is a paradise of flowers and fruit trees.

And then it's time to really eat. The guests seat themselves at tables stretching half the length of the garden, and then it comes, on big platters, the work of chef Josh Eden, owner of Shorty's 32 in the Village: tangy greens and grilled vegetables with a lemon-thyme dressing, and a semisweet Tokai wine; then some spicy grilled shrimp and Swiss chard, and a bone-dry Riesling; then honey-glazed grilled rack of pork with garlicky green beans and fluffy mashed potatoes, and a big Cabernet Franc; then (can there be more?) dessert of strawberries in half-whipped cream and a sweet late-harvest Chardonnay — all from local producers. With every course, the volume of talk increases, and by the end of the evening strangers are now friends, business cards are exchanged, and the guests crowd around Jim to render most hearty thanks for four hours of pure perfection.

Jim Denevan grew up surfing in Santa Cruz, taught himself to cook at age 17, and worked as a chef in several area restaurants until he got the idea of taking his show on the road. Catching the wave of interest in local and regional foods, his concept was simple: outdoor dinners at small farms and urban gardens, cooked up by local chefs and interspersed with brief talks from the farmers, the bread- and cheese-makers, and the other food artisans that produced it all.

That's how I got into it.

Four years ago, when Outstanding was about to hit the big- time in New York City, Jim made the rounds of our community gardens, snipping bunches of herbs and twisting off tomatoes and eggplants for his organic extravaganza. When he got to Genesis Park Community Garden here in the South Bronx, he discovered my beehives and invited me to supply honey and attend the dinner to talk about urban beekeeping. In years past, the honey was drizzled on the desserts; this year it ended up as a crusty glaze on the pork — hardly a better use for it.

The best thing about the food is that by necessity it must be simple as well as extraordinary; it's prepared on the spot, on huge charcoal grills and atop propane stoves. You take one look at these dishes and say to yourself, "I can do that." No Julia or Julie here.

It's a hell of a job to serve 200 people, and one outstanding part of the Outstanding dinners is how effortlessly they are done, thanks to the preternatural organizational ability of Katy Oursler, who has been coordinating these events since 2003. Unfailingly cheerful and continuously calm, she's the quintessential maître d', moving among the tables and chatting with the guests as if she'd known them all her life. Her staff of waiters, osmosing her own disposition, work the tables enthusiastically, keeping the platters filled and the wine flowing.

Jim Denevan sees these dinners as his mission in life. They are, he told Howie Kahn in an interview for GQ magazine, "the story of thousands of years of people bringing in the harvest, gathering it at a table, and breaking bread.... I think giving people the chance to share the table with all the characters involved in the process is something that might change culture."

Just might.

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Outstanding in the Field dinners, scheduled from May through October, come frequently to California — mostly in the north, with several in Ventura and Santa Barbara counties. This year Jim is venturing further south, holding two events at the Wattles Farm in Hollywood in October, both sold out. For background and the list of venues (2010's will be posted early next year), visit the website, www.outstandinginthefield.com.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

THE SECRET LIFE OF BEES


August 27, 2009

Last week, a violent little storm hit Manhattan and the Bronx. It lasted just a few minutes, but what the meteorologists called "microbursts" of wind reached 70 miles per hour. When it was over, almost a hundred trees, some over a century old, had been felled in Central Park alone, and many more came down here in the Bronx.
Early the next morning, I got a call from Jim Fischer, a master beekeeper who maintains the beehives atop the World of Birds building at the Bronx Zoo and recently formed the Gotham City Honey Cooperative, an association of urban beekeepers.
"I'm here in the giraffe area," he reported. "The storm knocked down a huge tree right in front of their barn, and the downed section is crammed with honeybees. We've got to get them out of here as soon as possible so the keepers can let the giraffes out. I've gotta chain-saw this thing so we can get it down and level — the piece of trunk with the bees in it is propped up against a giraffe-sized fence about 15 feet up. I'll have to get a ladder and see what we've got. This is really something. I'll keep you posted."
That afternoon he called again.
"We cut the bee section off and swung it with a rope to rest flat on a pile of big limbs," he said, breathless, "and I've pried it open so it looks like a log-canoe. The bee nest is about two feet wide and eight feet long. It's bigger than anything else I've seen in 25 years. It looks like they've been there for a very long time. There may be several coexisting colonies there, with multiple queens. If you want bees to strengthen your colonies, come and get 'em. And call all your beekeeping friends — there's plenty to go around. Bring some bee-boxes with empty frames. We'll cut up the comb and put them in the frames and the bees will go along with it. Let's meet here tomorrow morning at 7:30. This may take all day, and it's going to be hot as hell in those bee-suits."
Worker bees are like interchangeable parts. As long as there's no queen with them, you can put them in another hive, they'll pick up the scent of the queen, and almost immediately they'll integrate into the colony. Beekeepers regularly do this, taking bees from strong colonies to beef up the numbers in weak ones. Rarely do they get their bees from fallen trees, however.
I called Sara Katz, a young and adventuresome beekeeper with a couple hives at a community garden near Yankee Stadium. "I'll be there," she said without a beat.
Sara and I met Jim at the zoo gate the next morning, and we ran a car-caravan to the giraffe enclosure. There it was, the log-canoe, teeming with bees in the half-light.
Most American beekeepers house their bees in those familiar rectangular boxes, the invention of Rev. Lorenzo Langstroth, a Lutheran minister from Pennsylvania. In 1851, Langstroth devised a way of organizing a hive to encourage the bees' own building techniques while making it easy for the beekeeper to examine the colony and remove the honey without tearing everything asunder.
Honeybees construct their living quarters of wax secreted from glands on their abdomens, shaping it into a "comb" of hexagonal cells in which they raise their young and store honey and pollen, their food. In the wild, in hollow trees or other crevices, they build comb in distinct layers, with space in between to allow them to move and work all around it. Measuring the width of the comb and the distance between combs, Langstroth found it was uniform — about 3/8 of an inch. "Seeing by intuition, as it were, the end from the beginning," he later wrote, "I could scarcely refrain from shouting out ‘Eureka!' in the open streets."
What Langstroth had discovered was "bee-space."
Inside his wooden boxes, he put hanging frames 3/8-inch wide with a 3/8-inch space on all sides, and as expected, the bees built their comb precisely to the dimensions of the frame and not beyond. It then became a simple task to take out the frames and their contents while leaving the hive intact.
What we saw in the log that morning was natural bee-space, though the layers of comb had been crushed together by the impact of the fall. Peeling back the layers, we measured sections to fit our empty frames, cut them out with a serrated knife, secured them in the frames with rubber bands, shoved them in the bee- boxes, sealed the boxes up with window screen, and took them home. Most valuable was the comb that contained "brood," the beekeepers' term for developing bees in egg, larval, or pupal stages. Placing the brood and the bees that covered it in our hives, we would soon enhance our workforce by thousands.
With the eye of a highly-experienced beekeeper, Jim quickly discovered a queen among the maybe 100,000 workers, caged her, and designated her for a hive of one of his apprentices with a weak and unproductive queen.
Later that morning, several beekeepers from Brooklyn arrived by subway to take their share of bees. As the day warmed from sultry to sweltering, the operation was discovered by wasps, bumblebees, and foraging bees from other places, all battling both the colony and the beekeepers for access to the exposed combs of honey. "Robbing" is the term for it, and it's done regularly to colonies that are vulnerable or weak and unable to defend themselves.
The scene was complete chaos, but Jim and his sweating comrades managed to sweep most of the remaining bees into boxes containing packets of artificial queen-pheromone to make them think a queen was present and induce them to stay put. They sealed up their boxes, and at nightfall, when the robbers had gone home, Jim loaded them into his old Volvo wagon ("Half a million miles and counting," he says proudly), and delivered them to the Brooklynites' hives.
Within a couple days, the remaining comb in the log had been robbed dry, and the zoo crew could set about sawing up the logs and taking them away.
Amidst the detritus of the storm, a treasure was revealed: the secret life of bees.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

HEALTH CARE: VISION, WORD, AND WILL

August 20, 2009

My friend Joanie tells the story of her bout with strep throat while vacationing in London some years back.
"I was getting really sick, so I went over to the medical clinic near where I was staying. A doctor saw me right away, did an examination and prescribed antibiotics, which I got at the dispensary right on the premises. The whole thing took maybe 40 minutes, and my total cost was something like $2.50 for the pills. And I was a foreigner! No questions asked, no identification to show, I just signed in. I was sick, so they treated me."
It's experiences like Joanie's that change Americans' minds about universal health care. What? No preliminary questions about payment? No paperwork? No cost? It makes you want to tip the doctor.
Britain's National Health Service (NHS) has been drawn into our own so-called debate in the most curious ways. Opponents of reform here have made the NHS a frightening caricature, the Ghost of Christmas Future if Congress adopts even modest changes to our non-system. They thought that the Brits' frequent complaints about the NHS for its acknowledged inadequacies was a sure sign they're ready to ditch it. But they got an unexpected reaction from across the Pond: Citizens were outraged at the exploitation and embarrassed for America's callous treatment of its sick. Despite its problems, they are fiercely loyal to their system. Even the leader of the Conservative party, David Cameron, last week declared forcefully that the NHS would be strengthened, never abolished.
What brings about such adamance in a country that's not only not socialist but that has privatized many other government entities over the last three decades? Perhaps it's because, like our Social Security system, the NHS was instituted in a time of crisis, after World War II, a living symbol of the cohesiveness that brought the country through the war. It removed a Dickensian social scourge and affirmed British dignity as a civilized people. After 60 years, universal health care in the United Kingdom is a given; it's part of the national identity.
You'd think that the U.S., so close to the U.K. in attitude and outlook, would come to see it this way too. Aren't we the most generous nation on earth? What is it about health care that has made it the hot-button issue, even more divisive than war?
Given the widespread dissatisfaction with skyrocketing costs and denials of coverage, the time seemed ripe for a real shift. Yet the same sorry arguments that have been used since Harry Truman's time are de-wheeling the reform juggernaut: socialized medicine and higher taxes. "If Barack Obama and the Democrats get their way," runs a Republican National Committee radio ad, "the federal government will make the decisions about your health care. And their plan costs a trillion dollars we don't have." Whether or not these assertions have anything to do with the actual proposed legislation is almost beside the point. The G- word and the T-word still cause inflammation of that little Darwinian lobe in the collective brain that evokes the self- reliant pioneers and the self-made John D. Rockefeller. No matter that it's insurance companies that now make your health-care decisions and that they're the ones that are taxing you; once the fever starts, the nation becomes delirious.
This could have been stopped.
As the history of effective leadership has shown, it takes a clear vision, a forceful word, and an iron will to dampen inflammatory rhetoric and rally the country around a cause.
Many of us thought this was what Obama was about. Remember "CHANGE"? "HOPE"? "YES, WE CAN!"?
Well, ah ... maybe we can.
Obama's problem with health care is that he thought he could apply the principle of dialogue, one of his most attractive and effective features, to achieve reform. Right after inauguration, he got all those health-policy wonks and insurance/drug execs around a table and they all came out smiling. Then he threw the ball to Congress, somehow presuming they'd play as a team to craft bipartisan legislation to his liking, instead of sending down a bill himself. The first hundred days have turned to 200, those executive smiles hover over the Capitol like the Cheshire cat's, the radical right saw the door wide open to bring him down, and now it's a town-hall free-for-all. Couldn't he see this coming?
The extent to which Obama has lost control of the issue was no better illustrated than by his exchange with the college student in Grand Junction, Colo., last Saturday, who asked him how private insurance could ever expect to compete with a government-run "public option." All he could say was, "This is a legitimate debate to have."
College kid wins. FDR turns in grave.
Rather than taking on the insurance/drug establishment (the correct answer to the student question is: "You're exactly right, and that's why we want it."), he's not only let them in the game but let them call the shots. And rather than taking on the ultra- right by identifying their smears as plain old lies, he tells us they're just "differences of opinion."
Remember Chicago on election night? Remember Inauguration Day? Obama once had the momentum to make health care a national imperative, a part of our identity, as it is in Britain.
No vision, no word, no will: No more.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

MEDICARE FOR ALL?

August 13, 2009

The September issue of Consumer Reports is out. Cover story: "Ratings of 76 Health Plans."
Seventy-six health plans? And those are only the major ones identified in a survey of 37,500 CR subscribers.
Talk about bureaucracy. Most of those plans — 35 health maintenance organizations (HMO's) and 41 preferred provider organizations (PPO's) — operate in individual states; only a few are multi-state or nationwide. Each has its own policies and protocols, each its own billing and payment system, each its own customer service apparatus. It's no wonder that the average health-insurance premium rose 38% over the last two years, due substantially to administrative costs (lobbying included) that comprise around 30% of their budgets.
The CR article reports that 64% of those surveyed were "completely satisfied" with their insurance plan, wryly noting that such a "lukewarm response" is only slightly higher than the satisfaction level for cable TV companies. And as with cable TV, people can't use CR to comparison-shop for a better deal; they're basically stuck with whatever they've got.
The health-care "system" today isn't a system at all; it's a byzantine collection of individual units from providers to insurers, all out there to profit from the third thing that's sure in life besides death and taxes: sickness.
You'd think that with all the red tape people are tangled in (the CR survey rated the billing procedures of every single PPO as fair to poor), they would be clamoring for a simple, unobtrusive insurance system. Today, almost 30% of the people of America are covered by some form of government-funded insurance: Medicare for the elderly, Medicaid for the poor, S-CHIP for children, Tricare for military personnel and veterans. Medicare and the military programs, which are administered by the federal government, are user-friendly and immensely popular — so popular, in fact, that some people don't even think they're government- run; witness the widely-reported story of the man who told Rep. Robert Inglis of South Carolina, "Keep your government hands off my Medicare."
Why not take something that works admirably for people over 65 and extend it to everyone?
What Congress is now grinding out is the usual sausage — baloney, specifically: a hodgepodge of tinkering that leaves the non-system basically intact and has so confused and frightened the public that they're pulling back from these proposals like turtles into their shells. It's not that they've suddenly become happy with their health plans; it's just that they have utterly no idea about how these various thousand-page pieces of work will affect them.
That's why it was so refreshing to hear that Rep. Anthony Weiner of Brooklyn/Queens is introducing two bills into Congress, one to abolish Medicare and the other to extend Medicare to everyone. The first one is a piece of legislative irony you seldom see in the present climate of Congressional nastiness, daring all those public-payer paranoids to dismantle a program their constituents love. The second one is a straightforward single-payer alternative. Weiner had to wait a long time for this — he had to secure Speaker Nancy Pelosi's reluctant agreement to put single-payer on the docket — but it may in fact be a stroke of good timing. Many people, including some members of Congress, are so frustrated by the mishmash that they may take a good look at a plan that's clear, simple, and efficient (administrative costs for the present Medicare program are 3%).
So many of the objections to single-payer are driven not by evidence and common sense but by ideology, and of course by the insurance industry. As Weiner has noted, almost everybody who's privately insured has a single payer right now: their insurance company. There's very little "freedom of choice" involved; employers give few options other than choosing between an HMO and a PPO. The only difference is that their money is going to a business rather than to a government agency.
It's so strange that people and politicians can get so worked up about paying taxes and be so resigned to paying premiums. According to CR, the median annual premium of the individuals surveyed — that's not counting employer contributions — is now $1,829. Why not eliminate the premiums — and the companies that charge them — and tack that amount, and perhaps substantially less, onto a universal Medicare tax?
Once again, as in so many other legislative proposals both federal and state, there is apparently little in the several health-care bills about paying for them. President Obama himself has created his own "read-my-lips" moment by promising "no new taxes" on the middle class. But new programs should always be directly linked to new taxes. All this "creative financing" — cigarettes here, "the very wealthy" there — just leaves everybody, middle class included, with feelings of unfairness. The best solution is the most "transparent": a graduated health tax on income both individual and corporate. Right now, the Medicare tax is flat — 1.45% on all earnings for employer and employee, and 2.9% for the self-employed. Graduating the tax based on ability to pay (and that would include retirees, who presently pay nothing for Medicare Part A hospital insurance) would equitably raise the funds for universal health care.
The intangible health benefit of the current Medicare program lies in its providing not only insurance but assurance. It's guaranteed, and in most cases, it's hassle-free. People can worry about their health rather than their health insurance.
For those over 65, health care has come to be seen as a universal right. Why not extend that right to the population at large?

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

THE MOON AT FORTY

July 30, 2009

What is most astounding about the Apollo 11 moon landing is that it happened 40 years ago. What is most depressing is that so little has happened since.
In 1969, if you're old enough to remember, you played music on phonographs and reel-to-reel tapes. You shot photos on Kodachrome. You warmed up food on the stove. You wrote letters in longhand or on a typewriter, made your "CC's" with carbon paper, added up figures in your head or with a pencil. If you needed information, you went to a library. To tune in Walter Cronkite, you twisted the rabbit-ears.
And if you tuned in on July 20, 1969, what you saw were blurred black-and-white images, broadcast from a quarter-million miles away, of one man making a small step and mankind making a giant leap.
Or so he thought.
When Neil Armstrong planted that first boot-print in the lunar dust for all eternity, he believed he was a Columbus — not just the first, but the first of thousands. When Cronkite was rendered speechless on TV as the lander touched down — all he could say was "Wow!" — it was because he saw the heavens opening to us, as the earth opened to Europe nearly five centuries before. The Apollo mission was the cornerstone of a new era of daring and hard-fought exploration reaching to the stars — Per aspera ad astra, the Roman proverb that was inscribed on the plaque commemorating the death of three astronauts in the launch- pad fire on Apollo 1 in 1967 and that also graced the packs of Pall Mall cigarettes all those technicians in Mission Control were nervously sucking up as the lander made its approach.
In promoting his vision of manned space-flight in 1962, President John Kennedy had said much the same: "We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills .... And, therefore, as we set sail, we ask God's blessing on the most hazardous and dangerous and greatest adventure on which man has ever embarked."
When the Apollo 11 module Eagle landed, most of us who watched it thought that way. Our collective imagination ran high, like it ran in other times of intense exploration, from the conquest of the American West to that of the earth's frozen poles: first the moon, then the moon-base, then Mars, then Jupiter, then beyond. Everything seemed possible, because the seemingly impossible had been accomplished almost flawlessly and in so short a time: the first American satellite to orbit the earth had gone up just eleven years before.
The depressing part of the 40th anniversary commemoration is the realization that it all basically ended 40 years ago. Apollo was not the cornerstone of space exploration, it was the capstone. America had poured its ingenuity, daring, and resources into the moon-landing, fulfilled Kennedy's promise, beat the Soviets cold — and then didn't know what to do next. The trajectory of exploration, if not the trajectory to the moon, was lost. There were five more lunar landings over the next couple years, but they led nowhere: the astronauts picked up a few buckets of moon-rocks but otherwise spent their time hitting golf balls and clowning for the camera.
Apparently, NASA had not seen much beyond Apollo. In 1969, at the request of President Richard Nixon to present a long-range plan, the agency's Space Task Group recommended space-stations to study the earth and to launch payloads for a permanent lunar base and manned probes of the planets, serviced by reusable spacecraft. What America got instead was a runt of the idea: not a project named after constellations and Greek gods, not a Mercury or Gemini or Apollo, but ... the Space Shuttle, as mundane and repetitive as an airport-hotel bus, and several orbiting stations going round and round, with nothing going up and out.
Even as the Eagle was landing, the mood of the country was changing. Rioting and assassinations had scarred America the previous year, and young senator Ted Kennedy had met his Chappaquiddick just the day before. The anguish of Vietnam, which Cronkite had called a "stalemate," was stalemating the aspirations of the people, and Watergate eventually checkmated them. In the introspection, self-doubt, and inner conflict, the outward vision evaporated.
Forty years later, NASA is drawing up plans for a base on the moon, using vehicles remarkably similar to those of the Apollo mission. (A splendidly illustrated description of the proposal is in the August issue of Astronomy magazine.) President Obama has pledged to support lunar exploration, but what will come of it? This generation has enough of its own Vietnams and domestic troubles to blur any vision of the stars.
In his 1962 speech on space exploration, John Kennedy recalled George Mallory's response to skeptics asking why he wanted to climb Mount Everest: "Because it's there."
Today, there's no there there.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

DIRT ROAD TO PARADISE




July 24, 2009

Your vacation paradise may seem more like Paradise if you have to get to it by dirt road. Leaving pavement behind, you travel a physical barrier between your world of everyday and the refreshment you are seeking on the other side.
The half-vertical road up the mountain to Greg Lyttle's cabin was a slipslide of mud when we drove it in mid-June. Rivulets of water concealed trenches a foot deep, the doom even of four-wheel-drive vehicles like his Jeep Cherokee. But Greg knew every inch of the terrain by heart — every rut, every hole — and deftly steered us to the top.
Greg, a retired chaplain at the Veterans Administration hospital in the Bronx, has lived on the asphalt of suburban New Jersey and New York for most of his 67 years. Twenty years ago, for $10,000, he bought a hundred acres of rugged forest in southeastern West Virginia, near the old railroad town of Hinton. Improbably, the land had once been cultivated by a very determined family of farmers undeterred by the steep slopes and the hard clay soil. The farming project was abandoned during the Great Depression, the family's house on the highest point on the property burned and was carted away, and native oaks and poplars reclaimed the area.
When he first arrived, he had the old home-site felled of trees and graded, and built himself a small cabin and storehouse. Eventually he employed some nearby craftsmen to erect his dream-home, a 50-by-20-foot cinder-block structure sided with the locally traditional wood and mortar. The place has no electricity — "I refuse to connect to the Grid," Greg says; he uses an auto battery to charge up his only appliance, his cell phone. And there's no running water — rain off the roof is piped into a big plastic swimming pool, and it's a short but brisk walk to his spidery outhouse at the near edge of the forest. He cooks on an ancient wood-burning stove and wards off the darkness with oil lamps and Coleman lanterns.
The interior is one big room, furnished scavenger-style: a 1960's home-of-the-future kitchen counter whose double sinks drain into a bucket below, a summery patio dining set with glass- topped table and wicker chairs, threadbare but cushily comfortable sofa and settee, all from the ubiquitous local flea- markets, and beds salvaged from a defunct orphanage. The place would never make it into Country Home magazine, but Greg has no pretensions about rural life.
Country Home subscribers would also not appreciate the family of snakes, Southern Black Racers, that live cozily in the cabin's rafters. These elegant, non-poisonous reptiles, some of them six feet long, have been there for years. When people are present, they keep their distance, though occasionally you'll see one slithering out a crack in the ceiling and down the post of an open door to sun itself in the grass outside. When the cabin is unoccupied, the snakes take it over — Greg knows that from the droppings and shed skins he finds after a time away. He says he enjoys their company, and it's understandable — they're fascinating to watch, and they keep the cabin free of mice. His guests, however, require a bit of adjusting, especially at night.
Greg's most intriguing and utilitarian piece of scavengery is his 1958 Willys Jeep, which he bought for $795 off of somebody's front yard. It's the workhorse of his property, hauling loads, pulling up stumps, and getting him down and up the mountain on days of deluge or snow when even the Cherokee, its remote relative, would be immobilized.
It's essentially the same model that endeared itself to soldiers from World War II to Vietnam for its best-friend dependability in the very worst of conditions. Unlike the Humvees that replaced it in the military — those ungainly monsters full of computer chips and made-to-fail gadgetry — its workings are so simple that anyone with a little mechanical skill and interest can keep it in tip-top shape. I gave up working on my cars years ago, when they got so crammed with stuff I could barely find the oil filter, let alone replace it. Popping the hood of the Willys throws you back in time: There's nothing there but your basic four-cylinder engine, easy to understand and to get at. Driving it was time-travel too — with no power steering, no power anything, you're at one with the vehicle as it plows through mud and muck like some mechanical alligator.
The Willys is a symbol of Greg Lyttle's view of life: simple, and growing simpler. A compulsive reader and sometime scholar, his next project is to haul his mountain of books to the mountain and burn them in his stove, one by one.
The dirt road leads to Paradise.

Monday, June 22, 2009

OUT OF THE ASHES

June 11, 2009

"What happened was shocking and horrible and beyond description. There are no excuses for it. But only one percent of all the religious in Ireland were abusers, and it's affected us all. Nobody in religious life is highly regarded anymore — but being highly regarded is not a reason for our vocation."
Sister M., long-time teacher in Los Angeles Catholic schools, was describing to me the mood of her native Ireland in the wake of the recent report documenting the abuse of children at orphanages and reform schools run by Catholic religious orders, which I wrote about in my last column.
"People out there are so angry. Nobody wants to be on the support side, even though hundreds of thousands had positive experiences in their own schooling."
I spoke with Sr. M. to get her perspective on the situation. Nuns of her congregation, all young and adventuresome, were sent from Dublin to the mission land of America beginning in 1953. They taught me in elementary school half a century ago, and I, along with most of my classmates, had come away not only with a solid education but with an enduring affection for them: Almost to a woman they were caring and even-tempered in their work, and contagiously joyful in their lives — a contrast not only to the tales of horror described in the report but to the well-worn tales of "the mean nuns" recounted by so many American Catholics of that period. They were sober and strict in the classroom — how could they afford not to be, with "seven rows of nine students each," as Sister M. calculated; you do the math — and liberally applied the ruler to the hands of the unruly. But during recess and after school they were out there playing dodgeball and shooting baskets with the same unrulies, no grudges all around. To this day, many of their first students remain in touch with them.
Sister M.'s congregation has faced no accusations in the scandal, and there are historical reasons for it. Their foundress deplored orphanages and gathered a group of like-minded women in the mid-nineteenth century to provide an alternative, placing orphans and unsupported children in what we now call foster homes and diligently monitoring their treatment and progress.
"Our foundress was a hundred years ahead of her time," Sister M. said. "She saw orphanages as dehumanizing and impersonal. She saw what they did to people, not just the children but their guardians too. Now all the orphanages are gone and what she pioneered is the norm."
Over time, the Sisters grew in number and expanded into general education, opening elementary and high schools.
Sister M. was educated in their system, and joined them at age 18. "The convents were absolutely happy places," she told me. "If that weren't there, I would never have stayed."
All was not perfect, of course: "I admit that some of our nuns were harsh to the children for whatever reason — they feared losing control of the class, or they disliked teaching, or they were dissatisfied with their lives. But you find that in every organization. All in all, I think we were and are a fairly well- balanced group."
I'd wanted to write about these nuns specifically, as examples of the seldom-told positive side, but Sister M. requested that I not put the name of her congregation in the column. "Things are in such a furor in Ireland now," she told me, "that people might be out there Googling us, find your article, and say, ‘These Sisters aren't sinless — some of them hit me and ridiculed me when I was in school.' Who knows what might become of it?"
I mentioned this to an acquaintance of mine here in New York, a middle-aged Irish woman. "Certain people are smelling blood," she remarked. "There's so much restitution money being doled out by the religious orders, and the unscrupulous are coming out of the woodwork for a piece of the action. My entire schooling in Ireland was under the nuns, and by today's standards we all could say we were ‘abused' in some way. But that was how it was done then. We see things differently now, but when we were children, it was expected. It was just a part of life.
"As for the real abusers," she continued, "they went unchecked because priests and religious were idolized. Most parents believed they could do no wrong, so any complaint was useless."
Sr. M. said much the same thing: "In those days, if children would complain of bad treatment by their teachers, parents would say, "Go back to school. The Brothers will take care of you."
"My father hated the priests," my acquaintance told me. "He thought they were hypocrites, toadies of the institution, Church and state. Our neighbors were scandalized by his attitude, and I was ashamed of it myself, but it turns out he was right, at least in part."
The Catholic Church, once the center-point of Irish cultural identity, is now an object of derision. The churches are empty, the seminaries and convents are imploding.
"God is sweeping the house clean," Sister M. told me. "Jesus is cleansing the temple. But this is not all bad. There's a new spirit of honesty and openness. Institutions are dying so that true faith may grow. God has God's own ways of dealing with things. Out of the ashes God is always bringing something new."

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

SCHOOLS OF SCANDAL

May 28, 2009


"Witnesses described pervasive abuse as part of their daily lives.... In addition to being hit and beaten, witnesses described other forms of abuse such as being flogged, kicked and otherwise physically assaulted, scalded, burned and held under water."
Guantanamo? No. Irish orphanages and reform schools.
Last week, the Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse, appointed by the Irish government, issued its final report after nine years of investigation: 2,600 pages of evidence from the files of over 200 institutions and the testimonies of both staff and residents. The document focuses on the state of these schools over a 60-year period, from the 1930's until the last of them were closed in the 1990's, but traces the history back through the mid-nineteenth century.
Though funded and ostensibly overseen by the government, they were owned and operated by Catholic religious orders, primarily the ironically named Christian Brothers and the Sisters of Mercy. According to the report, instances of abuse, both physical and sexual, were "endemic." They were also kept hidden from the eye of the world by a tight compact of secrecy between the government and the Catholic hierarchy. But as John Banville, who attended middle-class Catholic day schools in Dublin in the 1950's (schools outside the scope of the report), wrote in the New York Times, in Ireland "everybody knew" — or rather, as he said in his closing paragraph, "We knew, and did not know."
What could have brought about this sad narrative? After all, the religious orders that staffed those schools were founded by people appalled by the cruelties visited upon orphaned and abandoned children. Edmund Rice established the Irish Christian Brothers specifically to provide a free education to the poor in a caring, supportive atmosphere. "He was adamant," the report states in its background study, "there should be no physical punishment, which he found contrary to his own spirit. In 1820 he wrote, ‘Unless for some faults which rarely occur, corporal punishment is never inflicted.'" Catherine McAuley founded the Sisters of Mercy in 1831 for similar reasons.
Beginning with the potato famine of 1845, the number of poor and orphaned children increased exponentially, and the number of religious Brothers and Sisters, young men and women themselves seeking refuge from destitution, did too. The British government, hoping to avoid entanglement in Catholic-Protestant rivalry, chose not to operate orphanages and reform schools directly but rather to fund denominational organizations to take care of their own. With money flowing, such institutions proliferated, and the policy was continued by independent Ireland in the twentieth century.
As with all institutions, these congregations of Brothers and Sisters may have veered from their founders' visions because of the pressures of rapid expansion. With lopsidedly disproportionate student-teacher ratios — over a hundred to one in many cases — the schools shifted emphasis from personal care to sweat-shop management, enforcing order by regimentation and the rod. What developed, insidiously and mostly unintentionally, was a culture of cruelty that perpetuated itself from one generation to the next. Ideals of Christian Mercy were buried in the same kind of Victorian expediency that Dickens described in Oliver Twist. Uneducated and unenlightened, newly-professed religious were thrown into packs of wolves — and soon became wolves themselves.
Isolated in their schools, away from the "temptations of the world," they found their own temptations in their own world. And bound by their vow of obedience to their superiors, they disclosed nothing.
There was another element, too — the influence of Jansenism on the Irish religious mentality. A Catholic version of Calvinism propounded by Cornelius Jansen in the seventeenth century, it asserted the essential depravity of the human race and the predestination by God of some to heaven, others to hell. Though condemned as heretical by the Catholic Church, this theology crept into the bones of the Irish and found telling expression in the schools. As Banville writes: "The doctrine of original sin was ingrained in us from our earliest years, and we borrowed from Protestantism the concepts of the elect and the unelect. If children were sent to orphanages, industrial schools and reformatories, it must be because they were destined for it, and must belong there. What happened to them within those unscalable walls was no concern of ours."
They knew, and did not know.
Banville acknowledges but does not cite "some notable exceptions" to this attitude. I'll give you one of my own in the next column.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

COMMON GROUND

May 21, 2009

Is the pope Catholic? Is Notre Dame?
You bet. While other colleges with origins in the Catholic Church have been in identity crisis for decades, emphasizing "inclusivity" and relegating their religion to the campus ministry office, Notre Dame University has remained unabashedly proud of the Church and the culture of Catholicism as central to campus life.
That's why it was quite a shocking surprise that the president of Notre Dame, Holy Cross Father John Jenkins, invited the president of the United States to speak at the school's commencement exercises. It was also a surprise that Barack Obama accepted.
Both men keenly knew what a fire this could set, a U.S. president committed to abortion rights taking the dias in the intellectual heart of American Catholicism. For months, various bishops had fumed and called on Jenkins to withdraw the invitation, and various Obama supporters had called on him to withdraw the acceptance, fearing a confrontation that might distract from, if not derail, his social and economic agenda.
Neither man backed down.
Introducing the president last Sunday, Jenkins remarked that "he knows well that we are fully supporters of Church teaching on the sanctity of human life, and we oppose his policies on abortion and embryonic stem cell research.
"Others might have avoided this venue for that reason," he continued. "But President Obama is not one who stops talking to those who differ from him."
He quoted the teaching of the Second Vatican Council that "respect and love ought to be extended to those who think or act differently than we do in social, political, and even religious matters."
On that the two presidents stood together.
"When we open up our hearts and our minds to those who do not think precisely as we do or believe precisely what we believe," Obama said in his address, "that's when we discover at least the possibility of common ground."
The possibility of common ground, at least for now, lies not in the essence of the abortion debate — the ontological question of when a human fetus becomes a human being with human rights protectable by law — but in nurturing a social environment that reduces the likelihood of abortions in the first place. In his speech, Obama mentioned making adoption easier and providing "care and support for women who do carry their children to term" — things that the Catholic bishops have long encouraged. He called for means to "reduce unwanted pregnancies" — an oblique allusion to birth control, which the hierarchy opposes but most Catholics support — and for a "sensible conscience clause" for those hospitals and medical personnel that oppose abortion — something that Catholic institutions have demanded and abortion- rights opponents oppose.
What Obama did at Notre Dame was to soften the terms of the debate, appealing to the sensibilities of most Americans, who see abortion neither as murder nor as a woman's unrestricted "right to choose." The mood of the country today — and this includes very many Catholics — is not confrontatory but conciliatory, a pulling back from the ideological extremes and a seeking of a middle path that recognizes both the necessity for medically-safe abortion and responsible restrictions of its use.
Obama's appearance at Notre Dame could not have been more timely, for it focused the nation's attention both on his recent appointment of a White House task force to study the issue and on his upcoming nomination of a Supreme Court justice. The explicit goal of the task force is to seek that heretofore elusive "common ground," and it may be the case that Obama will select a jurist with a common-ground approach as well.
Beyond the possibility of common ground in establishing a public policy that encourages birth and discourages abortion, is it also possible for Obama to initiate a civil and sober national discussion on the essential question of abortion, the ontological one? When asked by pastor Rick Warren during the September debate with John McCain, "At what point does a baby get human rights?" Obama jokingly responded that answering that question "is above my pay grade." He later apologized for his flippancy, saying instead that "I do not presume to be able to answer these kinds of theological questions."
Actually, these questions are for most people not theological but philosophical; they arise not from religious belief but from natural intuitions about human identity. The conclusions of Roe v. Wade, themselves a philosophical attempt at an answer that has long been ignored in the shouting, should be brought up and examined by every citizen, regardless of pay grade.
"We know," Obama recognized at Notre Dame, "that the views of most Americans on the subject are complex and even contradictory." Now may be the time for us honestly to air our complexities and contradictions and seek not just the common ground but the common good.
It's the spirit of Notre Dame.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

NOTHING TO SNEEZE AT?

May 14, 2009

The calls come frequently now: "Where can I buy your honey?"
I've been keeping bees at Genesis Park Community Garden here in the South Bronx for a decade, and word has leaked to the internet: Food bloggers wax poetic over the honeys these bees produce, people Google around for "local honey Bronx" and turn up my name.
Those who call me in the spring usually do not much care how the honey tastes. They want it for medicine.
As they introduce themselves over the phone, even their speech betrays them: Wheezing and congested, they've got pollen allergies. They tell me they've heard through the allergy grapevine that honey from their vicinity can lessen or even cure their affliction. Finding chemical medications either ineffective or repulsive, they're looking for an alternative, natural therapy.
Bees make honey from the nectar of flowering plants, and here in the Northeast, the flower season runs from late March through October. I harvest honey in small batches beginning in June and ending in early fall. By the time allergy season hits hard in May, I have little left to spare. As the eat-locally movement spreads, demand for the bees' magical product leaves me sold out by Christmas. But I always keep back a few jars to distribute to the desperate at dandelion time.
Whether local honey is effective against pollen allergies is unsupported by strict scientific research, mostly because there has been so little of it. As with other natural remedies, honey as a therapeutic agent has been ignored by the medical establishment — understandably, knowing where research money comes from and whither it goes. The website of the National Honey Board, which should have an interest in such things, cites only one peer-reviewed study, done at the University of Connecticut in 2002, in which 36 allergic subjects, divided into three groups, took a daily tablespoon of either local honey, generic honey, or a corn-syrup placebo with synthetic honey flavoring over a 30- week period; the researchers found no difference in the relief of their symptoms.
On the other hand, practitioners of naturopathic medicine quite unanimously assert the contrary: that local honey — and "local" is a relative term; some say a hundred-mile radius is local enough — is "immunotherapeutic," a kind of natural vaccination against pollen allergies. The microscopic pollen grains that waft unseen through the air in spring and fall and trigger allergic reactions are also brought back by bees from their foraging flights and find their way into the honey they make. Eating a spoonful of this honey every day for several weeks before the pollen onslaught allows the immune system gradually to build up tolerance for the invader and minimize or eliminate the reactions.
It makes perfect sense — that's just how a tuberculosis or flu vaccine works.
I find certain problems with this theory, from a beekeeper's standpoint. First, most of the types of pollen that have been identified as principal allergens — right now in New York City, maple, oak, and birch trees are the main culprits — are of little interest to honeybees, because these plants rely on airborne, not insect, pollination. If bees bring these spores back to their honey-factory, it must be in minuscule quantities: Rather than packing them into the pollen-baskets on their legs to be used for food, as they do with attractive plants, they may pick them up incidentally, the tiny grains getting caught in the hairs on their bodies as they fly. But who knows? Perhaps even minute amounts of these pollens present in honey may be enough to placate the immune system.
Second, each allergenic plant blooms only for a matter of days or weeks; thus the honey I harvest in June would contain a different pollen-set than the honey I harvest in August.
These arguments don't seem to bother those who take Bronx honey as medication. They are not fussy as to time of harvest; all the honeys seem to work equally well. I have tracked a number of these clients — you can't really call them customers — over the years, and most of them tell stories of weaning themselves completely off chemical medications with a daily dose of this honey, beginning in February. When I'm in full summertime production, they'll buy cases of honey in advance.
One interesting bit of evidence in support of the vaccination theory comes from a woman in the North Bronx who feels a tingling on her tongue when she takes her daily dose — what I would judge as a mild allergic reaction, like you get from a flu shot.
Of course, it could all be due to the placebo effect — but as research on many more serious afflictions has consistently shown, placebos quite often work, mind vanquishing matter.
Future studies may yet confirm the immunotherapy theory, but, as with the cause, the cure for allergies may be all in your head.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

DAFFODILS

May 7, 2009

It's been a cold, rainy spring in New York this year. Nature's annual flower show, so often spectacular, is muted in the chilly mists. Early May still feels like early April.

The successions of blooms have appeared later and lingered longer; rather than coming in short bursts that explode like fireworks in warm, sunny years, the colors this season blend into each other like an Impressionist painting.

The first wave of spring is already gone; the cherry and magnolia trees are leafing out, and most of the daffodils are withered and brown. Dogwoods and tulips and tree-peonies have taken their place, and the aliums and irises are sending up stalks that will open soon.

There is much more to look forward to: azaleas and rhododendrons and bush-peonies this month, and roses all into the fall.

For many people of a melancholic cast, the momentum of springtime joy stalls at the daffodils. This prodigious symbol of new life after months of winter barrenness only reminds them of winter barrenness to come. You see this mood broadly in Robert Frost's familiar poem:

Nature's first green is gold,
Her hardest hue to hold.
Her early leaf's a flower;
But only so an hour.
Then leaf subsides to leaf.
So Eden sank to grief,
So dawn goes down to day.
Nothing gold can stay.


Filtered through a consciousness that sees the present only as future past, the cycles of nature are inverted: growth is decline, the sun sets at its rising.

The psychological paradox of the daffodil has preoccupied many poets, the darkest of whom is certainly the seventeenth- century clergyman Robert Herrick:

Fair daffodils, we weep to see
You haste away so soon;
As yet the early-rising sun
Has not attained his noon.
Stay, stay,
Until the hasting day
Has run
But to the evensong;
And, having prayed together, we
Will go with you along.

We have short time to stay, as you,
We have as short a spring;
As quick a growth to meet decay,
As you, or anything.
We die,
As your hours do, and dry
Away,
Like to the summer's rain;
Or as the pearls of morning's dew,
Ne'er to be found again.


You wonder what his Easter sermons were like.

Or consider Ted Hughes, no stranger to the depressive disposition, who published his own "Daffodils" in 1998, a year before his death at age 68 and 35 years after the suicide of his wife Sylvia Plath:

Remember how we picked the daffodils?
Nobody else remembers, but I remember. . . .

We knew we'd live for ever. We had not learned
What a fleeting glance of the everlasting
Daffodils are. Never identified
The nuptial flight of the rarest ephemera -
Our own days! . . .

Every March since they have lifted again
Out of the same bulbs, the same
Baby-cries from the thaw,
Ballerinas too early for music, shiverers
In the draughty wings of the year.
On that same groundswell of memory, fluttering
They return to forget you stooping there
Behind the rainy curtains of a dark April,
Snipping their stems.


There are ways to stall while appearing to act. The carpe diem philosophy, usually thought of as a call to live lustily and existentially, is actually melancholia in disguise, as famously epitomized in another Herrick poem:

Gather ye rosebuds while ye may,
Old Time is still a-flying:
And this same flower that smiles to-day
To-morrow will be dying.


Seize the day! — and watch it crumble in your hand.

The opposite of carpe diem, while appearing to be alike, is the way of Zen Buddhism, the training of the consciousness to live in the present moment, the only real tense. Doing so liberates the self from memory and expectation, the shackles of ever-unfulfilled desire. The cherry tree is cultivated as the centerpiece of the Zen garden precisely because its flowers fade so quickly; they are unspeaking teachers of mindfulness in the immediate.

Then there are ways of integrating time. People who don't stall at the daffodils are invigorated by change. They live their lives as nature does, at ease with time's passage, exulting in each unique beauty of the seasons, preserving the moment in their memories and drawing strength, not regret, from their recollection. This is the rather uncharacteristic sentiment of the usually wistful Romantic poet William Wordsworth's encounter with daffodils:

For oft, when on my couch I lie,
In vacant or in pensive mood,
They flash upon that inward eye
Which is the bliss of solitude.
And then my heart with pleasure fills
And dances with the daffodils.


Avid gardeners must surely have the most holistic attitude toward life, enjoying the present while seeing the past as pathway to the future. As the tulips reach their height, they are busy clipping off the spent stalks of their daffodils and throwing them into the compost pile — to be turned by worms into new soil for next spring. "Deadheading," they call it.

That typographical poet, e. e. cummings, may have been a gardener:

in time of daffodils(who know
the goal of living is to grow)
forgetting why,remember how . . . .

and in a mystery to be
(when time from time shall set us free)
forgetting me,remember me

PANIC

April 30,2009

Shortly after 10 a.m. on Monday, a Boeing 747 marked Air Force One flew low over Manhattan, dogged by two fighter jets. Within minutes, people began pouring out of downtown office buildings, some rushing down 20 flights of stairs. It was a publicity photo-shoot, but not even the mayor knew that. To those in the skyscrapers, it looked like 9/11 all over again.
Fortunately, there were no injuries stemming from this event, but there could well have been. In the rush down the stairwells, one trip and fall could have led to many.
Panic causes immediate, reactive behavior. With no time to think, adrenalin-fueled acts of self-preservation often result in self-destruction.
Panic affects institutions too, but it works in an institutional way.
The 9/11 attacks threw the nation and its leadership into dazed confusion. There was no discrete enemy, no threatening nation, no army or missile silos to focus a retaliation — just some mysterious underground network of radicals using commercial aircraft as weapons of mass destruction. The supposedly invincible superpower, laden with the highest-tech conventional weaponry, was flummoxed.
Pressed for action, any action, the Bush administration set the juggernaut of institutional panic moving. By calling their initial response a war — the "War on Terror," a mere metaphor, like the "War on Drugs" — they were then compelled to pick some nation to set their conventional war-making machinery against. In less than a month, U.S. forces invaded Afghanistan, using a prepackaged Pentagon plan to overthrow the Taliban government, all the while claiming it would root out the elusive, highly mobile leadership of the terrorist group Al Qaeda, harbored somewhere there. Panic had forced the use of the wrong tools for the task.
Pressed for action on the domestic front too, the Congress hastily cobbled together a collection of freestanding agencies into the ungainly and unworkable Office of Homeland Security, with its orange alerts and duct-tape advisories. It equally hastily fashioned the so-called Patriot Act, which broadly expanded domestic surveillance. Into this atmosphere of panic entered G. W. Bush's oedipal obsession with finishing his father's job in Iraq in the name of flushing out Al Qaeda — a contrived connection that tapped the well of panic once more and bogged down the American military on two fronts.
It should come as no surprise that White House lawyers started drafting memos justifying the torture of terror suspects as early as January 2002. It is all of a piece, another example of how the initial panic, where the end of self-preservation seems at the moment to justify any means, was codified into policy.
So develops the banality of evil.
What is truly surprising is that the U.S. did not abrogate all its guarantees of civil liberties and barrel headlong into fascism, as has happened so often to other countries in recent history. The resilience of the Constitution once again saved us at the brink.
Should the authors of the torture memos, or those higher up that approved them, or those down below that carried them out, be investigated? Yes. Should they be prosecuted? No.
Prosecution is not the right route because almost everyone in government shares complicity in the torture policy, including Democrats in Congress who were briefed on the subject early on and uttered no word of opposition at the time. To a greater or lesser degree, the entire nation was caught in the web of institutionalized panic, from which we are just beginning to set ourselves free. To prosecute some lets all others off the hook.
An official investigation of the entire dynamic of post-9/11 institutional trauma, including but not limited to detainee torture, is imperative, to mark on the national memory how panic can so easily lead to perversion. Like responders who constantly drill to react automatically and effectively in the moment of emergency, the country as a whole should take this as an opportunity to examine its past actions and prepare itself for the inevitable next crisis.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

HOW TO WIN FRIENDS

April 23, 2009

Dale Carnegie would be proud.
Lao Tzu too.
Barack Obama must have gone down to the Summit of the Americas meeting of Western Hemisphere leaders last week with a copy of How to Win Friends and Influence People in his pocket.
Before he left, he rescinded the Bush-era restrictions on Cuban-Americans' travel to Cuba and on sending dollars to their relatives there, and immediately got this response from that old revolutionary, president Raul Castro: "We are willing to discuss everything, human rights, freedom of press, political prisoners, everything, everything, everything they want to talk about."
When he got to the meeting in Trinidad, he gave Hugo Chavez, the president of Venezuela and the surly spitter of anti-American vitriol, a broad smile and a warm handshake — and Chavez smiled back.
Right out of How to Win Friends, that primordial self-help text that has been showing people how to shake the fruit from other people's trees since 1936. It's just common sense, codified: If you treat people with respect, they're much more likely to do what you'd like them to do.
And heads of state are people too.
Anyone who has read a self-improvement book, from Carnegie to Covey — and who hasn't? — or taken a human-relations course, or been in family counseling, has learned the "habits of highly effective people." Of course, it's one thing to know it and a whole other thing to do it.
Obama seems to be doing it.
How to make people like you? Carnegie's approach is simple: Be genuinely interested in them; smile; be a good listener; talk in terms of their interests.
How to win people to your way of thinking? Show respect for their opinions; if you're wrong, admit it quickly and emphatically; let them feel the idea is theirs; see things from their point of view; let them save face.
Obama is deftly employing those tactics with Cuba, and they may win him the success that almost 50 years of belligerence from nine other presidents has failed to achieve.
Previous administrations have demanded that Cuba initiate democratic reforms before the U.S. would consider lifting its trade embargo and re-establishing diplomatic relations. But Obama's principle that negotiations, even failed ones, are always worthwhile is allowing Castro himself to bring up the very issues that have irked America from the start, dealing with them, as he said, "as equals, without the smallest shadow cast on our sovereignty and without the slightest violation of the Cuban people's right to self-determination."
In Carnegie's formula: Let them feel the idea is theirs; let them save face.
In an even more unexpected turnabout, Castro went on: "We could be wrong. We admit it. We're human beings."
I have no doubt that this admission arose as a direct result of Obama's own frankness about U.S. policy errors — especially and most recently the disclosure of the tactics of torture inflicted on its own political prisoners: the equality of mutual fault.
Carnegie again: If you're wrong, admit it quickly and emphatically.
Of course, there are other factors that may lead to the relaxing of tensions — the eclipse of both the doctrinaire Fidel and the equally doctrinaire first generation of Cuban refugees, as well as the utterly un-doctrinaire American businesses chomping at the bit to hit the Cuban marketplace — but it's the approach from the top that's facilitating it.
What a contrast from the G. W. Bush approach, where a smile became a smirk, where other countries were treated not as equals but as inferiors, where America was never wrong, no matter how wrong it was.
Lao Tzu, the Chinese philosopher who wrote The Way of Taoover two millennia ago, characterized leadership this way: "When the Master governs, the people are hardly aware that he exists. Next best is a leader who is loved. Next, one who is feared. The worst is one who is despised. The Master doesn't talk, he acts. When his work is done, the people say, ‘Amazing: We did it all by ourselves!'"
Oh, for a Havana cigar!