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Sunday, July 31, 2011

How Can You Expect a Person Looking for a Job to HAVE a Job?


Note: this post also appears today on the Huffington Post.

By Claudia Ricci

Beverly Bowne, who lives in the Bronx, worked for 28 years as a billing coordinator for a printing company in New York City. And then in 2009, she and a number of other employees at the company -- including her own supervisor -- were laid off.

Bowne's employer was hard hit by the recession. The company, like so many in the printing industry, is shriveling fast as internet communication replaces the need for printed materials.

For Bowne, the lay off was devastating. "I fell apart completely," she said. "You have to go through the grieving process." Bowne has spent the last two and a half years looking for work, sending out hundreds of resumes. Often, she gets the cold shoulder from prospective employers reacting to her grey hair and her age (she'll be 60 next month.)

Now, she's begun to see a new kind of snub -- job ads on Careerbuilder.com from companies saying that applicants must already be employed in order to apply for the job. Bowne calls the ads "outright discrimination," adding that these ads "remind me of the 'Irish need not apply' ads of our earlier history."

Bowne isn't the only one infuriated by the ads. The progressive activist orgranization USAction has now launched an on-line petition campaign to stop what they are calling an "outrageous" form of job discrimination.

"It's outrageous enough that 14 million Americans are out of work. But discriminating against jobless people who just want to feed their families and stay in their homes? Employers should not penalize applicants for a job status that they cannot control, especially when prohibiting the unemployed from applying only compounds the issue."

To say American's are job-hungry is an understatement. So many Americans are downright desperate. To those folks, some of whom were comfortably employed at the top of their fields before they got bounced, the idea that you can't apply for a job unless you have one may sound a bit Kafka-esque. Or downright cruel.

But to companies advertising in places like Careerbuilder, Craigslist and Monster.com, there is a certain evil logic. These days, it is clearly an employer's job market. With so many millions of people unemployed, and frantic to find jobs, companies are routinely flooded with applications for every open position.

That flood gives employers the privilege to be very, very picky. Some employers reason that people who were let go during the recession -- people like Bowne who still cannot find work -- tend to be less desirable employees. Those lucky folks who have managed to keep their jobs are the cream of the crop.

This logic seems to Bowne like just one more punch in the face as millions of jobless remain unemployed, through no fault of their own. "They treat like you don’t want to work," she says, which is absolutely not the case. "We want to go back to work, but basically there is nothing out there." Bowne has attended numerous job fairs, and she's also had extensive guidance from social services on how to get re-employed. One tip she's taken to heart: volunteer work. She now spends two days a week volunteering at a nearby nursing home, and while there, she took the initiative to reorganize and clean out the conference room. She also took charge of the nursing home's files, and got them all in order. Still, she's so discouraged by job hunting in the New York area that she is now planning to relocate in the next month or two to Mesa, Arizona, where she has family. Hopefully, there, she will have more luck finding work.

The job ads in question are particularly hard on older Americans, for whom job-hunting already has a cruel twist. The clock is ticking for these folks, as they pass out of their prime working years.

Bowne says that in the many seminars and job fairs that she's attended looking for work, she's met a slew of middle-aged men and women who are up a tree looking for jobs. "Anybody in their 50s or older is really having a tough time," she says. "I’ve seen executives who have been out two or three years. Many of them are in their early fifties, in their prime, they’ve been vice presidents, and still they're without jobs."

An article in the New York Times indicates that job ads telling unemployed people not to apply is a practice that technically doesn't break the law:

"Legal experts say that the practice probably does not violate discrimination laws because unemployment is not a protected status, like age or race. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission recently held a hearing, though, on whether discriminating against the jobless might be illegal because it disproportionately hurts older people and blacks."

According to the Times, companies of all sizes and types are engaged in this advertising practice. The University of Phoenix removed their ads after the Times inquired about them. Other job categories included among those discriminating against unemployed workers include "hotel concierges, restaurant managers, teachers, I.T. specialists, business analysts, sales directors, account executives, orthopedics device salesmen, auditors and air-conditioning technicians."

In a recent report, the Washington, D.C.-based National Employment Law Project called the job ads a "perverse catch-22 [which] is deepening our unemployment crisis by arbitrarily foreclosing job opportunities to many who are otherwise qualified for them. It dilutes the storehouse of talent in in America, by casting aside an untold number of skilled and dedicated workers who have the
misfortune of being unemployed in the worst downturn since the Great Depression. And it adds to the crisis that unemployed workers, their families and their communities face, as we try to crawl out of this deep recessionary hole."

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

THE STATE OF YOUR BED


By Judith England

"The state of your bed
is the state of your head,”
she said.

She, a Zen priest, her very being projecting
unruffled calm,
of course.

My own bed that morning looked like the scene
of some terrible struggle, or perhaps
alligator- or demon-wrestling
unsuccessfully

All night.

So, it’s morning now and I set about to smooth and tuck,
pat and fluff, pressing away with my hand
all that battle left behind,

In hopes that the state of my head can become
the state of my bed.

Writer Judith England is a certified massage therapist and yoga teacher who keeps the Holistic Health blog for the Albany Times Union.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

My Friend David Seth Michaels' Blogpost Got Me Calling Congressman Chris Gibson


I just read the following amazing blogpost from my good friend and activist, lawyer David Seth Michaels. He was deeply frustrated trying to send an email to Congressman Chris Gibson's office, and so he called Gibson's office in Kinderhook, New York. Inspired by David's "exercise in participatory democracy," I picked up the phone and did what I almost never do, I also called Gibson's office and I told the young assistant who answered that the Republicans have to compromise. I told him that in last night's speech by House Majority leader John Boehner, he said the debt crisis situation was basically President Obama's doing, and that the situation could be easily resolved if the president would just agree to his, Boehner's, bill. Thank you very much Mr. Boehner, but that's not compromise. That's wanting things your way! I also called Gibson's Washington, D.C. office and after several tries -- apparently the lines are jammed throughout Congress -- I got through and left a message.

I want to thank David Michaels, who so often inspires me with his words on Dream Antilles. I also want to ask each of you who is reading this post to call your own congress person and tell him or her to get off the dime and come to some resolution as quickly as possible in order to avoid the disaster that is impending. Here is Gibson's phone number: (518) 610-8133 in Columbia County and in DC, it's (202) 225-5614. To find your own congress person's phone number in Washington, D.C., call the House switchboard at (202) 224-3121.


By David Seth Michaels

Last night after the President’s speech, I thought I would send a cheerful email to my Republican Congressman. The idea was simple: I want the debt ceiling raised without any preconditions so we won’t have a massive economic debacle. I’d ask him just to put the budget/debt/spending/taxation/deficit debate on hold to avoid a market and jobs and worldwide economic meltdown. It’s simple. Even the President didn’t ask for it though. So what. So I went to the trusty laptop, found Chris Gibson’s web site for Congress (and the ones that are still up from his November, 2010 election campaign) and tried to send an email. No can do. I get a message that says, “Server Too Busy.” No email page. Fine, I think. Millions of Americans are at this very moment trying to express themselves. I don’t care what they’re saying; it’s democracy at work. I’ll try again in the morning. I will be heard, I think. I will persevere.

It is now 8:30 am. First, because I have not had enough coffee, I mistakenly send an email to Chris Gibson at his site to be elected to Congress. After I send it I think, “That was great. And easy. On to today’s activities.” Then I realize what I did. I’m sure that was an utter waste of time and that nobody will retrieve, let alone read this email. I regroup. I again find his Congressional web page to send an email, http://gibson.house.gov/Forms/WriteYourRep/, and guess what? I wait. And I wait. And it doesn’t load. And I wait. And I wait some more. And finally after about 19 minutes I get the idea that it’s just not going to load. Ever. I’m just not going to be able to send this guy an email with my views about the impending default. The page will not load. Damn it, I say. I’m not going to let this obstacle prevent me from saying what I have to say. I’ve got too much invested in this project already. I’m going to have to use antiquated technology, the telephone, to call my Congressman’s local office.

Meanwhile, while I’m wondering how the United States Congress can have such crummy servers and whether that is in fact a metaphor for the entire US infrastructure, if not the alienation of the voters, I get a disquieting, automated response from the Chris Gibson Campaign which ended in November, 2010. It says:

Our campaign is dedicated to restoring a free, prosperous and safe America. We believe that by reducing taxes, spending and borrowing, we can unleash the private sector‚s ability to create jobs and provide economic security for local families.

Ut oh. It doesn’t sound like Congressman Chris Gibson is in favor of just raising the debt ceiling to avoid an economic meltdown. Sounds like he might have some other agenda, one that sounds all Tea Partyish. Is he an acolyte of the Orange Guy? Of the T-publicans? I shrug. I’m will not be deterred. I don’t care what he said when he ran. We all know that most of that campaign, just like very other campaign, was complete nonsense, just political garbage, no matter who the candidate was. Just look, for example, at President Obama. Yes, I say, just look. That turns out to be a very depressing, disillusioning idea to pursue. I stop thinking about it and tell myself to get back on task.

Undeterred, I try to shake off the bipartisan gloom and find the Congressman’s local phone number. Great idea. His web site still will not load the office information so I cannot get a phone number for the Hudson office from the web. I wait. Meanwhile, I wonder whether Obama is ever going to close Gitmo, or tax the fat cats, or do any of the other great Hope and Change mambo I enjoyed so much. I start to muse about Universal Health Care. Impeachment of Cheney I’m getting very depressed. After about ten minutes of totally dispiriting self talk, and trying figure out how to get a number, the website loads, and I find a number in Kinderhook, (518) 610-8133. Ah. The day will not be a complete waste, I think.

I dial. To my surprise, the number is answered. Immediately. I tell the woman on the other end that I’m a constituent, that the nation and I cannot afford a default, and that I want the Congressman to do whatever has to be done, including caving in completely to the President, hoisting the white flag of surrender, to avoid a default. The debate on taxes, debt, spending, the deficit, all of that stuff, can wait for another day. Just prevent a default. Just avert the economic disaster. Do whatever has to be done to prevent a worldwide economic collapse. She says she’ll tell the Congressman. I think her, give her my contact information, and hang up.

Thank goodness. I was beginning to think it was going to take all day to unburden myself and get this modest message through to my representative. I was beginning to reconcile myself to wasting hours to accomplish just that. This only took 45 minutes. Great. But now I’m thinking that what happened is that they have a score sheet at the Congressman’s office with two columns on it: Column 1 says, “Boehner,” Column 2, “Obama.” It took me 45 minutes to be a line, like “/”, in the “Obama” column. Yes, they’ll tell the Congressman all right. They’ll tell him at the end of the morning, 106 for this and 102 for that. Then he’ll do whatever the people who wrote their opinion on the back of a $1000 check told him to do.

This thought leads to frowning. Where, I wonder, where is all of the Hope. And the Change. And that strong safety net. And our caring about the people who most need assistance. I have no idea. And why, I wonder, isn’t the President on board with, “Give me a clean bill, one that avoids the default until 2013, and we can debate all the rest of this afterwards. This is an emergency.” Why indeed. Why is everything I want always, yes, always “off the table” before the discussions begin. How sad. It feels like electoral politics business as usual.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

OBAMA SPEAKS, NOW I'M LOOKING FOR A RALLY TO GO TO


NOTE: This post also appeared today on the Huffington Post.

By Claudia Ricci

It's been more than a year since I sat up and really listened to something that the President of the United States was saying. It's been at least that long since something President Obama has said moved me in any way or made me particularly proud that he's the Guy in Charge.

But Friday evening when he spoke to reporters after talks on the debt ceiling agreement fell apart -- because the rockhead Republicans refused to move off their position on raising taxes -- something happened. For a few minutes, I felt like I was watching the Obama of the old days, when he was campaigning, when he could muster an electrical response in audiences with his supreme rhetorical gifts. In those old days, Obama seemed to have what it takes to bring the country together to move forward.

Now of course the love affair is long since over and it's not clear the President has the audacity of hope or the political talent or willpower to propel us out of a first-class mess.The past few weeks have brought into sharp focus the desperate political and economic straights that we face as a nation. With Republicans unable as the President pointed out "to say yes to anything," and the right-wing Tea Party crowd willing to see the country go up in smoke to prove some kind of ideological (did I say idiot-logical?) point, we are fabulously stuck. And it's frightening.

What impressed me Friday evening was the fact that Obama looked and sounded authentically pissed off. He was angry in part that he had been "willing to take a lot of heat from my party" to call for cuts in entitlement programs. Indeed, he totally infuriated Democrats with his willingness to cave into right-wing demands for cuts in Medicaid and Medicare, government programs that serve the poor and the middle class.

But even as he showed this flexibility (some would say weakness,) the Republicans led by Majority Leader John Boehner still refused to compromise. They refused to consider raising taxes to help close the deficit. Without tax increases, Obama pointed out, "the entire thing ends up being tilted on the backs of the poor and middle-class families." That is, we squeeze the people most in need for the money.

It was when he laid this out, and when he made this point rather elegantly in his press briefing, that I found myself sitting up and paying attention. It was when Obama stood up and spoke out on behalf of working families and seniors -- for the American middle class -- that I said, finally! Thank you Mr. President. This is what I wanted to hear:

"The hard part is actually dealing with the underlying debt and deficits, and doing it in a way that’s fair. That’s all the American people are looking for — some fairness. I can’t tell you how many letters and emails I get, including from Republican voters, who say, look, we know that neither party is blameless when it comes to how this deft and deficit developed — there’s been a lot of blame to spread around — but we sure hope you don’t just balance the budget on the backs of seniors. We sure hope that we’re not slashing our commitment to make sure kids can go to college. We sure hope that we’re not suddenly throwing a bunch of poor kids off the Medicaid rolls so they can’t get basic preventative services that keep them out of the emergency room. That’s all they’re looking for, is some fairness."

As someone who teaches in a university program that serves hundreds and hundreds of poor kids who come from inner city neighborhoods, I know a lot about how much government services mean. I know that most of my students wouldn't be where they are today, going to college to get ahead, if they hadn't had these vital services. I know how much their lives have depended on Medicaid and food stamps and welfare checks. I know how much these students continue to depend on government loans in order to stay in college. I know that without all of these government programs, these same students might very well end up going nowhere.

So when the President stood before reporters in the White House on Friday and said that legislators have a moral duty to protect ordinary people -- those "working stiffs" he hears from in the bundles of mail that come to him daily -- I found my heart beating a little bit faster.

He said:

"It turns out, actually, that the plan that Speaker Boehner and I were talking about was comparable in terms of deficit reduction. The difference was that we didn’t put all the burden on the people who are least able to protect themselves, who don’t have lobbyists in this town, who don’t have lawyers working on the tax code for them — working stiffs out there, ordinary folks who are struggling every day. And they know they’re getting a raw deal, and they’re mad at everybody about it. They’re mad at Democrats and they’re mad at Republicans, because they know somehow, no matter how hard they work, they don’t seem to be able to keep up. And what they’re looking for is somebody who’s willing to look out for them. That’s all they’re looking for."

He concluded the briefing by saying something very important: "At some point, I think if you want to be a leader, then you've got to lead."

By this point, I was standing in front of the the TV. I turned to my husband and said, "I swear, if there was a march somewhere tomorrow to support Obama's position on this debt ceiling deficit reduction mess, I would go."

OK, so when and where is the rally?

"What's Really Going On, America?"


By Alexander “Sandy” Prisant

Note: Writer Sandy Prisant was formerly an adviser to Britain's Department of Trade and Industry and the British Overseas Development Agency. This post appeared first on Wordsmith Wars, a blog on the UK's Telegraph.co.uk, an online version of The Daily Telegraph.

Does any American really think a higher debt ceiling will save the nation? If you thought that, you'd be wrong.

The debt ceiling debate is merely a stalking horse for the back story – the attempt to eviscerate America’s middle class by eliminating even the flimsy social floor the country has now. That would pretty much finish off anyone not rich enough to pay for their own health care, education or social services.

Already, income equality has fallen through a black hole. We are back to the same gap between rich and poor that existed in the US in 1910. That means all the equality gains of the past 100 years have been wiped out in just a decade. America’s income profile now looks little better than that of Paraguay, where a few super rich and tens of millions are struggling to live a decent life.

As the rich and the Tea Party, now blatantly overtaking the Republican Party, fight to grab the remaining 10% of our country’s assets from the other 90% of the population, the back story is the fight to hold off the steps Republicans are taking to cut the legs out of unions, middle class households and ordinary workers. Here is one small part of that back story.

When Wisconsin’s new governor took away collective bargaining for state unions, it was just the first dagger to the heart of the people. Now those people are fighting back. Six Republican state legislators are now faced with recall elections, in the hope that Democrats could take those seats and stop the Governor cold from further shenanigans.

While we as a nation are watching the debt debate theater in Washington, this is the sort of TV ad that the good people of Wisconsin are watching. Take a look.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Indiana Writer Emily Suess Reviews Seeing Red!


By Emily Suess

In the novel Seeing Red by Claudia Ricci, readers follow Ronda on her adventures of love, passion and self-discovery. Sounds hokey and unoriginal on the surface, doesn’t it? But let me just say that Ronda has issues, and they are very interesting issues. Instead of pursuing a career in dance at the age of 19, Ronda got caught up in a relationship with her college professor, got married, and raised two boys.

Now 18 years later, Ronda is newly divorced and dealing with her sons’ transition into adulthood. Life is forcing her to examine her marriage, her unfaithfulness, and her changing relationship with her children.

At the same time she must come to terms with these changes and her own infidelity, Ronda finds a renewed passion for dance and gives herself over to the study of flamenco. However, her life takes a twist when her lover, Jesus, disappears in Spain.

With a book as artfully written as Seeing Red, it only takes a few pages to become immersed in Ronda’s world. For a time you won’t even know you’re reading; you’ll just feel like you’re there.

Emily Suess is a freelance writer based in Indianapolis, Indiana. This piece appeared first on her blog, Suess' Pieces.

Friday, July 22, 2011

At the Top of the List of Things to be Grateful for: Splashing in a Pond


Has it EVER been this hot?

Maybe maybe not.

But I know one thing for sure. I've never appreciated the pond as much as this morning. Because of all the rain this summer, the pond is pretty full (usually it's shriveled into a mud puddle by this point in the summer.)

Not today.

Splashing in that cool water -- which feels like it's clean enough to drink -- was just heavenly. It made me feel as grateful as I could be.

If you are hot, and you happen to be passing through Spencertown, N.Y., and you want to jump into my pond, you are welcome. Just email me for directions, and bring your own towel. My house is the one with the blue tree in front.




Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Artsy Fartsy and Look What's Come of It -- An On-line Book!


Note to Readers: Earlier this year, I experimented by serializing chapters of my new novel "Seeing Red" on the Huffington Post. Meanwhile, I have also been writing "Sister Mysteries," a crazy time-travel murder mystery, on-line. One email I received in response was from a couple named "K & J." They explained that they had written, illustrated and constructed a full website for an online serial called "Impeccable Petunia." Said K: "It's a series about a backyard chicken of the same name and we just released it a few weeks ago. We're new at this and we thought we'd write and say "hello."

Well, so, here is K, writing about how this beautiful project came to be! Good luck K and J!

By "K"

"Impeccable Petunia" started as an unpublished blog project. We loved the blog idea, yet we found storytelling exciting and wanted to explore where we could go with it. A few weeks after scrapping the blog, we grappled with where to go next.

J suggested that I try free writing, to which I replied, "I don't free write." He gave me that searing look that he gives when he's determined to get me to do something, and though I knew I was going to lose in the end, I fought anyway. "I come from a policy and research writing background," I replied, "If I write, it's with an objective or a goal. This open-ended artsy-fartsy nonsense is not for me."

After exhausting all my excuses I sat down, and to my surprise I wrote a silly little story about forest animals.

J read it, laughed, and said, "Do more."

"More?" I complained.

"It's good. More."

Back to the blank screen I went and one day a few weeks later, J, as he often does, enlightened me with an interesting factoid he'd read that day: "Did you know chickens can see more colors than people?" An hour later, "Petunia" was born. It was a one-page anecdote that has evolved into a serial about a backyard chicken who discovers her talent for interior design and how that impacts her life and the life of her flock.

To my astonishment, J loved it and "Petunia" has since taken over our lives.

J has always been an artist. In college he would draw, paint and arrange bits and pieces of colored paper into beautiful creations that amaze me to this day. After college we moved from Southern California to Seattle where he started his own web design business.

I, on the other hand, have had a much less direct route to this point. My undergraduate training is on the research science side and I have a master's degree in public policy analysis. I started in politics, then moved into consulting work. I'd enjoyed writing stories when I was younger, but it had never progressed beyond that point.

When our economy changed a few years ago and work dried up, we decided we had to try something new. As we are children of the Internet, it just made sense for us to use our skills in that direction.

Little did we know that what would come out of it was "Petunia." While I have always loved a good story, I have never written fiction, so what you see here is about five drafts, months of work, and a little help from a kind friend with the proofreading and editing. I was completely terrified at first, but as I kept working at it, I found it to be more gratifying than anything else I've ever done before.

We thought about a more traditional publishing route but decided to utilize the medium we know best. Our desire for the project has been to create something fun and enjoyable that people could read on their lunch breaks, on an iPad while curled up on an easy chair or on a smart phone while waiting to pick the kids up from soccer practice.

As for the rest, well, we're still not sure yet. All we know is that we love our chickens and we hope other people do too.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

"A Good Night's Sleep"


By Lynn Biederstadt

Some writers thrive, living close to the edge. I’m not one of them.

I’m like a cat, that way. I cherish a certain amount of order. Predictability. Quiet. Unlike writers who live happily in excess and turmoil, I am a sailor in my head; I favor calm waters of circumstance upon which the ideas can sail.

Calm has been hard to come by, lately. Balance has been available in minutes, only. I am beset by much uncertainty. Body blows to an admittedly unsteady ego. Job searches. Homes disrupted in the craziness of water and demolition damage and an imminent move. My brain grabs a couple of intense, dreamless hours a night, then wakes busy and holds sleep at a distance.

This is not productive time, this insomniac-attempt to plan Step A to Step B to Step C. It is racket, buzz, noise in the mental attic. And the work has suffered for it. I have found it impossible to trust my choices from sentence to sentence. I haven’t been able to hold anything in my head for more than a minute. I barely have two brain cells to rub against one another.

Even so, I turn to the page with gratitude. Despite the writerly ADD that sent me to check for new leaks every ten minutes, I got a chapter finished. And another. And notes assembled for more…and a possible decision about combining two chapters into one. The return of balance in small steps. At least for now.

Tylenol PM is a gift to writers. And maybe exhaustion is, too. I woke looking forward to the day, whatever it might hold. Maybe the calm won’t last the day. Maybe it won’t last the hour. For now, the good night has given me a good day. For the writer, whose life unspools out of a steady head, I’ll take it. Whatever it turns out to be.

Writer Lynn Biederstadt, who lived for 32 years in New York City, is now living in Missouri. She is the author of several novels, including "The Spiritkeeper," portions of which have appeared here on MyStoryLives. Her books have been translated into four languages. She blogs about writing at skydiaries.wordpress.com, where this piece appeared first.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Suspend Self-Judgment and Be a Poet!


By Judith England


"Breathe-in experience,
breathe-out poetry.”


~Muriel Rukeyser, quoted in Highs by Alex J. Packer

I love discovering and rediscovering poems, reading them, sharing them, as well as attempting, at times, to climb inside an author’s psyche to understand the origin of some particularly juicy bit of poetic wisdom. Even songs don’t do it for me unless they’ve got terrific lyrics.

Writing it myself is an entirely different story.

Oh, of course, I’ve got the small spiral bound notebook that holds a few adolescent creations. They are as awkward as I was at that age. And yet, when I reread them I can recall things in a way memory alone fails me. The emotions come back as well – the newness of everything, the hurts and disappointments, the way time seemed so expansive at that age. I’m glad I still have that little book as a reminder.

It occurred to me that poems are documents of mindfulness – recording the sensations, thoughts, and spiritual essence of a moment. The really fine poets have a way of reaching beyond the specifics of their time and place to something more, some common denominator of living this human life. We read their words and identify with the experience. We feel connected.

Here’s a perfect example taken from “Poems of Awakening,” a poem by Kabir, written in the 15th Century:

Lift the veil

that obscures

the heart

and there

you will find

what you are

looking for.

It never seems to fail that when my thoughts are moving in a particular direction that what I need to see or hear just shows up. Grist for the mill so to speak.

There’s a super video of Lynda Barry, cartoonist, poet and playwright, talking about poetry – how to read it, understand it, and why it’s important. She looks a little like an aging version of her cartoon characters – usually teenagers- and the video says important things in a humorous way. Poetry works, says Barry because it can “travel through time intact” through generations and across continents evoking in a reader the sentiments of the poet from long ago and far away. She continues, and makes a plea for poetry and the arts in general saying that these are “the stuff of mental health, and we ignore them at our own peril.”

Another plus is putting pen to paper, is the opportunity it presents to suspend self-judgment. One of Barry’s iconic cartoons is that of a woman, hunched over her desk pen suspended mid-air. Above her head are two bubbles of thought: One, “Is this good?”, the other, “Does this suck?”. We want so much to be good, to be right, to be valued – it’s difficult to relax and just write – even if we know no one else will ever read it!

My belief is that its’ possible for anyone who has some level of mindfulness to be a poet. Maybe not in a Big “C” Creative sense like a Dickinson, cummings, Whitman or Rumi; but a more personal, small “c” creative, able to give voice to life as they are living it.

There was an article on Oprah.com by award-winning poet and non-fiction writer Honor Moore entitled “How To Write Poetry”.

She offers the following:

"Let’s say I’m sitting in that room with you now. Take out a pad and pen, your favorite pen—the one that just slides across the paper. Be sure you have an hour or so, so you can take your time with each prompt.

12 Ways to Write a Poem

Make a list of five things you did today, in the order you did them.
Quickly write down three colors.
Write down a dream. If you can’t remember one, make it up.
Take 15 minutes to write an early childhood memory, using language a child would use.
Write a forbidden thought, to someone who would understand.
Write a forbidden thought, to someone who would not.
Make a list of five of your favorite “transitional objects.” Choose one and describe it in detail.
Write down three questions you’d ask as if they were the last questions you could ever ask.
Write down an aphorism (e.g. “A stitch in time saves nine”).
Write down three slant rhymes, pairs of words that share one or two consonants rather than vowels (moon/mine and long/thing are slant rhymes).
Write three things people have said to you in the past 48 hours. Quote them as closely as you can.
Write the last extreme pain you had, emotional or physical. If the pain were an animal, what animal would it be? Describe the animal."

So that’s your Holistic Health “Mission Possible” for this week (should you choose to accept it). Give it a whirl. You’ve got nothing to lose except a little time, ink and paper. Relax, have fun with this. I’d love to have you share your efforts here on the Holistic Health blog if you’re so inclined – you can even remain anonymous if you like.

OK,OK, I’m not going to ask you to do something I wouldn’t do..so I’ll post what I’ve written next week. How brave of me.

Writer Judith England, a certified yoga teacher and a massage therapist, has been keeping the Albany Times Union's Holistic Health blog since January of 2008. This piece is cross-posted with the Holistic Health blog P.S. We sure hope that Judi will send her poetry to MyStoryLives!!

Sunday, July 17, 2011

"The Journey We Take Alone" Part Eleven

Note to readers: Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh is famous for many quotes, including one about toothaches. He says: "When we have a toothache, we know that not having a toothache is happiness. But later, when we don't have a toothache, we don't treasure our non-toothache." Writer Sandy Prisant, who is dealing with a serious kidney ailment, seems to know the treasure of a non-toothache kind of day. Thanks for this reminder that we should always treasure those days that we feel good!

By Alexander "Sandy" Prisant

Today, I feel better.

And I felt even better the day before yesterday. Not “tennis-ready” better. Just “walking-the-dogs” better. Something close to normal. Like you hopefully feel, sitting there.

For me, this is a big deal. I’m struggling to remember the last day that I felt this close to “well.” It was probably back in late January, before I took a stress test and they had to stop the machine almost before it started and then give me a heart pill to help me recover.

That was almost six months ago. Can’t remember feeling normal any day since. Almost 180 days in a row. That puts today in context.

So much of life is about perspective. How we feel about something that changes from a state we took for granted, because it was "everyday normal.” Writers remind us that all our perspective is hindsight. Thinkers note that we almost never know when we are making love to someone for the last time. There’s very little foresight in this game we play with mortality. We don’t even really know how well or unwell we ae until our conditions change. We “feel” in the present, but we also get a sharper perspective of how things were, after the fact. We appreciate the good parts of the old reality more. Much more.

Almost everything is perception and perspective. Most of us gave little thought before to our good fortune, living in the most prosperous and powerful of societies. But now, as it fades, we’re thinking about how it was and will be. A lot.

The status quo has to change for us to really appreciate what we had before. What I’ve been battling these last months -- I refuse to think of it as the new normal, but rather as a series of bumps in the road. While I’ve never stopped being aware of my condition, that has mostly been intellectual.

It had been so much the opposite for me for a lifetime. Physically I’d felt little or nothing for all these years. And because this disease has moved slowly, my body has been deploying a natural process called compensation to gradually adapt to declining chemistry, as my one kidney filtered less and less. For so long, I kept feeling nothing. For a decade I’ve been saying “there’s no medical explanation for how I am still here and feel this well.”

But now the realities of medical pathology may at last be catching up with me. Now, how well I’ve felt and how rich a life I’ve been able to live for more than three score feels just that much more so. Indeed some of that richness came from always pushing for the fullest possible life experience, because I knew the clock was ticking.

But now the clock has brought me to things like this:

I felt some soreness around my shoulder one night. Most of us would brush it off, but this was inches from the temporary dialysis port they had placed in my upper chest. Susan innocently called the doctor. Panic stations: “Go to the ER for an emergency ultrasound.” What?? “This could be a clot,” the nurse said. “This can kill you.”

I was angry. And frustrated. That trip to the ER blew up dinner and the rest of that day; it was my fifth trip to an ER in three months; or was it the sixth? It was certainly more than in all the six decades before. As often happens to people fighting to get their lives back, the fight can start to consume the life.

And then you start thinking: if that shoulder discomfort could have killed me, where does it stop? Which little niggles we all have every day are worth raising my hand about? Are we just supposed to guess when to speak up and when not to be a pest to those around us? And how many times can you go to the ER anyway? At some point the whole process seems ridiculous. How many times in a month? A year?’

This is what it must mean to be sick. After a lifetime illness, I’m only now learning about that. Before, I had seemed like a minor miracle in my immediate circle—always fighting and beating the odds in crises that I have yet to tell you about. These crises would never last longer than a month or two, usually without much discomfort.

I search for a comparison in my life to recent events. For perspective and context. And what I find is not great. The only prior point that seems to mirror this time was during the first couple of harrowing years of life. When I battled bad odds, conditions without cures and infections without antibiotics. No, not great.

But you know what?

Today I feel better.

And that's what counts most.

Writer Sandy Prisant, who worked as a management consultant in different parts of the world before he retired, now lives with his wife, Susan, in Florida. In March, he began writing a series about his chronic kidney disease. At the time, he said this was perhaps "his last writing project." Part Ten of "The Journey We Take Alone?" appeared in June.

Friday, July 15, 2011

A Day Lily Reminds Us...








They are called day lilies for a reason: each magnificent blossom only lasts a single day.

The way the petals look -- bold curves and colors, some so velvety to the touch -- makes the flowers look like they are filled with lasting power. It is so hard to comprehend that they literally are here today, gone tomorrow.

Which makes meditating on lilies a curious thing to do.






As I sit staring into the blossoms, questions arise: is there any way to absorb the beauty of these flowers? this summer garden? this incredible summer day? Should I sit here and stare at the flowers 24 seven?

Of course not.

We hear so much about being in the moment. The more one tries to be in the moment, however, the more elusive the experience feels.

Still, I close my eyes. I smile. Listen to that sweet bird chirping a splendid melody. Another bird, its chirp a short series of bullets. A bee circling. The long coo of a mourning dove.

I breathe, feeling peaceful. Grateful.

I am reminded of Tara Brach's incredible book, Radical Acceptance. Brach, a psychologist and Zen Buddhist, talks about opening ourselves up to all of the emotions we feel, no matter how difficult they are. At different points in the book, she talks about how the fullness of any moment can be overwhelming. If we really stop to try to absorb all of what we feel, all the love, all the emotion, all the sensations, it feels sometimes like our hearts will break!

I sit back and smile again.

I try the impossible: to commit this magnificent summer morning to perfect memory.

This piece also appeared on the Huffington Post.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Arguing About... Robots?


So my husband and I got into a bit of a tiff this morning. We argued about the strangest thing.

Robots.

It happened after I wrote a piece in the Huffington Post the other day about Sherry Turkle's new book, Alone Together. A bunch of readers wrote in, and one of the comments got me thinking.

The writer -- who calls himself "MIIKE" -- yes, two i's there before the k -- wrote quite eloquently, and took the position that this "robophobia" of mine doesn't make a lot of sense. He noted:

"In the not too distant future, robots will look like people and will think for themselves. They will have personalities and personal quirks. Why wouldn't someone fall in love with another being, flesh or metal, if the two connected on various deep and personal levels? People fall in love with their pets, why not robots? As for sex, I can easily see a robot being a far superior lover to any human."

He went on to point out the fact that human relationships are fraught with drama and despair. There are too many "acrimonious divorces" to count. There are "physical and psychological abuse both sexes heap upon one another." And then, Miike noted, there is "the agony of watching a mate die of old age, or, even worse, of some horrible disease."

Miike is opting for the bot: "I'm waiting in line for my hot, super smart, super beautiful, soulmate/lover/house cleaner/bodyguard/secretary. Sorry people, but no human can come close to a mate like that."

He concludes by raising the issue of a robot's soul. "Why wouldn't self-realized androids also have souls? Perhaps far more noble souls than a race that rapes, tortures, destroys the planet it lives on, and has perpetrated mass murders from the beginning of time to the present."

Miike got me thinking. There are a whole lot of wicked people in the world. People who brutalize each other. People who are cruel and self-centered and destructive and dangerous. Given the choice between a destructive and violent person and a kind and compassionate robot, why would someone choose a relationship with the former?

That's what got my husband mad. He said he thought it was sad that anyone would want a machine as a stand-in for a human, in any relationship. On principle I agree with him. EXCEPT, I said to him, what if the flesh-and-blood person was a pedophile? Or a pervert? Or a brute? Or a rapist? Or just a really really unhappy person who made everyone else miserable?

At that point, his temper flared a bit. He got testy, which he hardly ever does. He was about to sit down to meditate (I got him meditating a few years back and now he's addicted to it, the way I am.) His point: a person who chose a brute probably wouldn't choose a robot, but rather, the brute.

"A robot is most likely going to be a stand-in for a person who cannot deal with people," he said. "A robot is going to be a stand-in for a person who can't deal with the complexities of human relationships."

He was getting more and more upset. As nicely as I could, I pointed that fact out to him, but that actually seemed to make him more upset. Finally, I told him I thought we should just drop the whole discussion. We did.

But then a little while later, I started to write this post. In an effort to make sure I had his position correctly, I asked him very nicely if I could read a portion of this post to him. He sat down in the rocking chair in my study and I read to him. He started to get really upset again. He said he couldn't believe that I was actually considering this notion that it might be better to have people in relationships with robots rather than people.

I said it was better to see people in relationships with kind and compassionate robots than partners who were mean and brutal. I think I said that because I had a long long talk yesterday with my writer friend Peg. She's writing an amazing novel, based on a true story, about a woman who was married to a man who ended up murdering her.

My position with my husband was simple: given a choice between a man who brutalizes and murders, and a robot, I would opt for the robot in a heartbeat.

He was not buying that. He said that there are reasons that lead a woman to marry a brute and once again, he made the point that said woman would not choose the robot.

But how would he know who she'd choose?

To him, the idea of robots in relationship to humans is just a cop out -- a way to avoid the complex challenges of being human. "It is just one more way for people to avoid dealing with the great challenges of personal growth, trying to understand themselves and others and how to achieve compassion and human love."

But he was getting upset again. And since my goal in life is generally to try as much as possible to achieve PEACE, I decided it was time to let the robo talk go.

So we did. Until breakfast. When we started talking more calmly about whether most people want to change their bad behaviors. Whether people really want to try to address their flaws, and improve their communication, and get along.

Or whether most people wouldn't rather engage (and escape) in petty dramas that keep life interesting. If you consider what is popular on TV and in the movies, and what kind of novels are commercially successful, then I think there is a case to be made that despite our great love for self-help manuals, we love mucking around in dysfunction and disaster and despair.

I know one thing: I have a very tough time finding literature out there that is truly redemptive, with characters who really transform themselves. And another thing: it's really really hard to change yourself in meaningful ways. You might say it's a full-time job that very few people apply for.

So anyway, that breakfast chat was interesting. And peaceful. Which is good. Because the last thing my husband and I need to do is argue. Ever. Especially about something like ... robots.

Monday, July 11, 2011

HUMANS MARRYING MACHINES? Call me ROBOphobic!!

Note to readers: Pictured here are the "sex" bot Roxxxy, released in January, 2010, together with her creator, Douglas Hines.

By Claudia Ricci

The notion had never occurred to me. Not even for a moment. But now I see how I might be ROBO-PHOBIC. Yes, it's possible. People will be mating machines and I'm not going for it.

And no, it's not too far in the future.

If you think it's crazy, pick up psychologist Sherry Turkle's fascinating new book, Alone Together, a startling exploration of the way digital technology and the fast-changing field of robotics are turning emotional connections among humans upside down.

Turkle, an MIT professor and the author of two previous books on the relationship between humans and computer culture, recounts a conversation that she says "stunned" her. It sure as heck shocked me.

A reporter for Scientific American phoned to interview her about the future of robots. Turkle writes, "... he accused me of harboring sentiments that would put me squarely in the camp of those who have for so long stood in the way of marriage for homosexual couples...The reporter was bothered because I had objected to the mating and marriage of people to robots."

So there you go. Turkle is ROBO-PHOBIC too.

What's the appeal in marrying a machine? I mean, truly, why would anyone choose to love a robot?

A second encounter of Turkle's brings the reasoning into clearer focus.

To read the entire article, go to the Huffington Post.

Saturday, July 09, 2011

OBAMA'S PROPOSED MEDICAID CUTS WILL HURT MILLIONS OF WOMEN, CHILDREN AND SENIORS!!


By Richard Kirsch

President Obama’s proposed Medicaid cuts won’t address the source of rising costs, but they would be a major step backward for public health care.

While the public debate about the Republican budget focused on the sharp reactions against Paul Ryan’s Medicare privatization scheme, the other big “M” in health care, Medicaid, hasn’t received the attention it deserves. As a result, the Obama administration has proposed cuts in Medicaid. These will undermine the achievements of its own historic health care law and harm access to health care for tens of millions of women, children and seniors.

Unlike Medicare, our national health insurance program for seniors and the disabled, Medicaid comprises 51 different state programs (including Washington DC) operating under a set of federal rules, financed by both the federal and state governments.

As a result, it’s much harder for the feds to control Medicaid costs through policy changes. The Ryan/Republican budget doesn’t even try; it simply limits the amount that the federal government will spend on Medicaid and shifts the rest of the costs to the states, while weakening the rules so that states can dump people out of the program.

Unfortunately, most of the proposals that have been made by President Obama in the debt-ceiling negotiations are a kinder and gentler version of the same wrong-headed policy of shifting costs to states, and through them to American families, rather than dealing with the underlying reasons that Medicaid costs are rising.

It’s true that Medicaid costs are increasing, but that’s not because Medicaid has done a poor job of controlling health care costs, at least compared with the rest of the nation’s health care system. For example, from 2000 to 2009 private health insurance companies spending per person increased by 7.7% each year while Medicaid spending on acute care health services –- doctor, hospital, prescriptions, tests, mental health – increased by 5.6% a year. Medicaid did an even better job controlling spending on long term care, which went up an average of just 3% a year per beneficiary, the same rate at which the economy grew and lower that the overall rate of medical inflation (4.1%).

To really see where Medicaid spends it money, you only need to look at the 5% of Medicaid beneficiaries who are responsible for more than 50% of the costs. These are people with very serious, chronic health conditions and serious disabilities. President Obama knows this –- in fact, he raised the issue at the National Governor’s Association in February.

The other major factor in Medicaid spending is increased enrollment –- particularly when the economy tanks. For example, enrollment of families was flat from 2004-2007 but spiked sharply once the recession began. Enrollment jumped by three million from June 2008 to June 2009 alone, the biggest increase since the early day of the program.

Rather than dealing with the root causes of high Medicaid spending, the Obama administration proposes to cut $100 billion from Medicaid over the next decade, mostly by changing the way it pays states for the program. The biggest change would be to reimburse states at the same rate for all their Medicaid patients, unlike now, where states get a different rate for different populations, such as children or seniors. The new so-called “blended rate” would be set at a lower amount than current health spending.

Like the Ryan plan, the proposal is simply a cut to states, albeit a much smaller one than Ryan proposed and without the loosening of rules on who and what to cover included in the Republican budget. States would still cut back on who and what it covers, if only to the extent allowed within the current rules. States would also cut payments to providers, which in many cases – particularly physicians, dentists and hospitals in some states – would make it harder for patients to get needed medical care.

The “blended rate” proposal also strikes a blow at the Affordable Care Act, which is counting on Medicaid to provide care to more than half of the 33 million uninsured who will be covered under the new law. Under the Affordable Care Act, the federal government will reimburse states 100% of the cost of these new enrollees for the first three years and gradually reduce that to 90%.

Compare that to the average 57% now that the federal government pays as its share of Medicaid. The blended rate would result in states having to pay a lot more for people who become eligible for Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act. As a result, states will throw up more barriers to enroll these working families and will scream more loudly about how the ACA is hurting their budgets. That later charge has almost no basis in fact now, but will become true under the blended rate proposal.

A second Obama administration proposal would close off one source that states now use to finance Medicaid, taxes on health care providers. Since states would be reluctant to replace these taxes with other taxes, they would also cut their spending on Medicaid, lowering federal spending.

In fact, only 10% to 15% of the cuts in Medicaid spending in the Obama proposal would come from rational savings in the system – increased efficiencies in providing medical equipment and prescription drugs – as opposed to simply giving states less money and making it harder for them to raise money for Medicaid.

The Affordable Care Act was a huge step toward a more rational health system, but the Obama proposals for Medicaid in the budget take us backward. Instead, the President should accelerate reforms that focus on the handful of high cost patients that drive most of the costs, by requiring states to implement care coordination programs which provide systems and incentives for health care providers to improve the care of the chronically.

Early this June, Senator Jay Rockefeller announced that 41 Democrats had pledged to “stand united against any efforts to slash Medicaid.” Their action was aimed at the debt-ceiling and budget talks. Unfortunately, their resolve will be tested soon, in the Medicaid proposal made by their Democratic President.

Richard Kirsch is a Senior Fellow at the Roosevelt Institute. His new book on the campaign to win reform will be published in 2012 by SUNY Press. Kirsch, who is a senior advisor to USAction in Washington, D.C., was National Campaign Manager for Health Care for America Now during the legislative battle to pass the Affordable Care Act, the bill that promises to reform the nation's health care system. This post appeared first on New Deal 2.0, the Roosevelt Institute blog.

Friday, July 08, 2011

CHAPTER 47 of "Sister Mysteries": Heaven Help Me, Another Newspaper Tries to Do Me In!!

NOTE TO READERS:
Sister Mysteries is a time-travel murder mystery featuring a nun, Sister Renata, who in 1883 was falsely convicted of murdering her cousin Antonie. This post appeared first on the Sister Mysteries site.


By Claudia Ricci


One week exactly after visiting the newspaper, we woke up to old Bean the jailer knocking on Kitty's door. He can't read, the poor man, but he'd learned that the Gazette had printed our story and he'd been promised a quarter by Kitty if he bought the newspaper and brought it to the house for us to see.

As she closed the door, my head was spinning in memories. I've seen what newspapers can do when they want to skewer you. It happened to me when the San Francisco paper wrote about me just after I was arrested for Antonie's murder. That article convicted me way ahead of the trial!

But here now was still another newspaper, the local Gazette, and judging by the look on Kitty's face as she placed the paper on the table, it wasn't good.

Kitty muttered something and I asked her to read the headline out loud. She inhaled. And read each word at a painfully slow tempo.

Local Woman Needs Anyone With a Pen and A Bleeding Heart!!

I winced and sank deeper into the sofa.

Kitty cleared her throat and carefully unfolded the paper and spread it on the oak table. She and Teresa pulled up their chairs. I just stayed put there on the couch staring at Kitty's remarkable tin ceiling, my eyes tracing the curlicue patterns.

"Aren't you going to look with us?" Kitty asked quietly.

I shook my head back and forth, very slowly, feeling the tears gathering. A tight panic began squeezing at my insides. "No, you two can read it first, and if it's as bad as I think it will be, I'm...I'll just pass. I am not sure I have the stomach for it."

And so Teresa and Kitty read John Dimson's article in silence. I put my hands over my face and only once glanced up when I thought I heard Kitty sucking on her teeth. At that moment I noticed Teresa shake her head ever so slightly. They finished. They sat there.

My heart hammered. I wasn't able to speak. I wanted desperately to know. I wanted desperately not to know. I wanted most of all to go to sleep and forget the whole matter. But how could I possibly forget the fact that I was going to the gallows in a matter of days?

Finally Kitty spoke.

"Well that young man deserves a good sharp boot right smack in his back side."

"I'd agree completely," Teresa said. She sounded rather weary, even though it was still early in the morning.

"But then," Kitty went on," I could tell right away. The moment I laid eyes on him last week. His whole demeanor. That reporter is well-named. Dimson. DIM-witted Son of a..."

"Oh KITTY!" Teresa covered her ears and shook her head vigorously as if to rid herself of the vulgar outburst.

"Well, sorry for that, Sister, I do apologize, but that man wrote the least sympathetic piece of dirty laundry I've ever read, and hung it out for all to see. And not only does it hurt our cause, but the story isn't even accurate. I am sure that I told him we'd collected 27 letters, not 17. I know for a fact because I had the stack in my hand for Pete's sake."

Teresa inhaled. "It makes no difference really. If he'd written 27, or 207, in that awful story, it would matter not one bit!"

By now, I felt that I might wet my pants. My mouth was so parched and dry that my tongue felt withered. I couldn't speak but I started to cry. Teresa and Kitty rushed from the table to the sofa, where I lay.

"Heavens, don't take it so hard," Kitty said, sitting beside me and squeezing me in a tight embrace. "It doesn't matter what the silly paper writes. I will go door to door, starting this afternoon!"

"And I will go with you," Teresa said, placing a hand on my arm.

I sat there sniffling. I wanted to say, "I'd just as soon you don't. I would just as soon you accepted the inevitable and gave up. I would just as soon you had never tried." But none of that came out of my mouth. I had so little energy to speak. What did it matter, what I said? What did anything matter now?

I knew that I had to read the article for myself. But how to find the courage? The strength?

"Teresa, dear, if you wouldn't mind, would you be kind enough to bring the paper here to me? I don't know that I have in me to sit there at the table with it."

"Of course I will," Teresa said.

Kitty stood. "But wait. Before you read a word of that foul stuff, you need a good strong cup of tea," she declared. She stopped. "Or would you rather my famous chestnut coffee?"

I considered saying that I wanted a shot of old Bean's whiskey.

"A cup of tea would be delightful," I said and forced a smile. And so Kitty made me tea, and brought it to me in one of her grandmother's fine china cups, a pretty green. And she also buttered me a fresh biscuit with raspberry jam.

And only when I'd finished both of these did Teresa bring me the dreaded newspaper article by Mr. John Dimson. Once more I had in front of me the writing of a man who, like Antonie, was using his clever words to turn my life inside out.

Thursday, July 07, 2011

"The Journey We Take Together" -- Part Three

Note to Readers: MyStoryLives has become the home for two amazing – and intertwined – stories. In March, writer Alexander "Sandy" Prisant began writing a very moving series, "The Journey We Take Alone," about his lifelong struggle with a serious kidney illness. A month ago, his wife, Susan, who is also a writer, began telling the story of the couple’s adventures through the years. (They eloped 47 years ago at the age of 18.) Part One of Susan’s series, “The Journey We Take Together,” ran on June 7, 2011, and Part Two ran on June 29, 2011. Sandy has had a rough couple of weeks, with far too many doctor’s appointments to count. But he has every intention of writing again soon!

By Susan Prisant


My father -- along with my father-in-law -- were waiting for us at the airport. Sandy and I were terrified. We had just dropped a bomb on our families – we were 18 years old and we were getting married!

Would they accept this wild teenage romance that we’d thrust upon them?

I took a few steps closer to my father – close enough so that I could see his twinkling baby blues. Just a little closer. Then it was all hugs and kisses. And plenty of them. Hallelujah! I knew my father wasn’t going to kill me now.

We all piled into my father in-law’s Lincoln convertible. Waiting for us at the big house was my mother-in-law and my mom, who were having coffee and cake. Naturally we all joined in. Being Jewish, there’s always room for coffee and cake. Before this ritual was over we had become one big, happy family.

Two sets of parents were busy interrupting each other with instructions to their children—us—for a whirlwind Master Marriage Plan. Thus was born the Four-Day Bombardment Schedule.

First things first. They had to send out invitations to meet “Mrs. Alexander Simon Prisant.” The invitation was a bit confusing. Guests kept asking my father-in law, “So, Joe, is this your mother come from the Old Country?”

No. This Mrs. was ME! This Alexander Simon Prisant was my Sandy, Joe’s son. Sandy was simply “Sandy” to everyone; never Alexander. Slowly it began to dawn on the guests that we were celebrating the marriage of Sandy and Susan. The confusion and surprise made the party an even more memorable event.

A wedding feast was scheduled at my parent’s house. Oh, and if things weren’t already crazy enough, my brother suddenly decided to get married too, so we had to have our third ceremony in the Rabbi’s study.

We also needed to get the blessings of Grandma and Grandpa—Sarah and Usha. And we had to go out to the cemetery–only God knows why.

We had to write a small speech wishing complete strangers good luck.

And oh yes, Sandy had to rent a tuxedo and get a haircut. And me? I was endlessly fighting bad hair days at the salon.

Clothes for the bride? “Don’t worry. Cousin Penny has a wedding gown you can borrow and that black cocktail dress will be just fine for the party at the Prisants,” my mother said. Black. The color of death. For a wedding. How appropriate.

The appointed time for the wedding came. 2 pm. I got the gown from Cousin Penny. Raining? No. It was pouring! Will I make it in time? Sandy was stuck at the tuxedo rental. Will he get here?

Helen laying the table settings for 300 guests. My parents, at home cooking -- God, I hope they’ve stopped. Joe, in town, picking up even more cake. Five cars come careening into the parking lot. We were all running from the rain—or the Bombardment Schedule.

Married again.

Then running again; everyone screaming: “You forgot the babka!” Five cars speeding out of the parking lot.

The pictures from the wedding dinner at my parents’ house that night show Sandy and me with our eyes closed. We were trying to smile, but we were dead from exhaustion.

My brother’s wedding was a lot speedier, as my sister-in-law came down with double pneumonia the day before the big event. While the Rabbi was in full flow, the bride suddenly began choking to death -- the Rabbi did the vows in double time.

If all this sounds a bit breathless and wild, it’s because it WAS! The story of our weddings (yes, plural) made the rounds. It had all started with our whirlwind weekend at the University of Wisconsin. It took us to Iowa, where we tried but failed to get married. It carried us back from the Midwest to New York. And then, the story found its way to the Southwest.

The winter after we got married, Sandy and I were sitting at a bar on a ski holiday. The people beside us were very nice and extremely chatty. They were from the University of Texas. They’d heard an amazing story. As we listened we began to realize it was our own wedding story that they were telling!

We never interrupted. Instead, we savored each sentence, locking them away. A story, a set of memories to have and hold forever.

Yes, we knew it well. It was ours.

Writer Susan Prisant is the author of several books for children. She lives with her husband, Sandy, in Florida today, but they have lived in several parts of the world including Israel, Spain and England.

Tuesday, July 05, 2011

How Bhutan Balances Forest Preservation, Economic Development -- AND HAPPINESS!!

NOTE TO READERS: A college friend, freelance writer Cathy Shufro, of New Haven, Connecticut, visited Bhutan not long ago to explore the way that Himalayan nation is promoting economic development while trying to preserve its vast forests.

The Bhutanese government also manages to bring into the mix a formal measure of happiness -- Bhutan has written into its constitution that the country "shall strive to promote those conditions that will enable the pursuit of Gross National Happiness."

In her article on Bhutan in the May/June issue of the Yale Alumni Magazine, Shufro presents a fascinating look at the way Buddhist philosophy informs the life of the Bhutanese people and their government. What follows is a short excerpt from her piece -- it may start you thinking about visiting Bhutan!

By Cathy Shufro

"Ideas of sacredness serve to preserve nature in subtle ways, too. Villages throughout Bhutan have always designated certain groves uphill from cultivated land as sacred, says Nawang Norbu, director of the Ugyen Wangchuck Institute for Conservation and Environment, a government conservation research and education center. 'There are some forests where you would be advised not to enter because of deities,' and these inviolable stands of tress safeguard water sources. 'Some elders in their wisdom would have understood this intricate relationship between forest and water and, ultimately, their livelihood.'

"In the midst of this discussion comes one of those exchanges that illustrate how much Buddhist faith informs thought, feeling, and daily life in Bhutan. When I ask Nawang Norbu how many people the forestry department employs, he estimates 1,200. But he says the exact number doesn't matter: 'One could die tomorrow.'

"Taken aback, I attempt a joke:

'Knock on wood.'

"'It doesn't matter,' he says. He pauses, then adds, 'Emptiness.' Others in the room nod.

"I've heard of emptiness. It's a Buddhist belief that human beings are deluded in thinking of ourselves as discrete from other beings; everything is continuous and the 'self' empty. But my concept of it is hazy. 'I don't understand emptiness,' I tell Nawang Norbu. 'Nobody does,' he replies, 'so there is no point in me talking about it.'"

Writer Cathy Shufro is a tutor and lecturer in Yale University's Department of English.

Saturday, July 02, 2011

Researchers are Studying How Mindfulness Makes Us More Happy!!

By Lenore Flynn

How can mindfulness -- a practice of opening the heart and mind -- help us become happier?

I recently returned from the 2011 Mind and Life Summer Research Institute in Garrison, NY. This is an annual gathering of scientists, philosophers and contemplative teachers so they can enter into a dialogue about the research related to meditation and mindfulness.

One hundred and fifty people from all over the world are chosen to attend by Mind and Life. This was a rare opportunity to spend a full week with colleagues whose enthusiasm and interest in mindfulness and its implications equal my own. I met many remarkable people whose love of inquiry is inexhaustible. The week’s conversations at mealtimes and in between were filled with questions, challenges and answers. The faculty or keynote presenters fueled these fires with their questions and challenges. We also meditated together several times a day. I could not wait to get up each morning.

These are the people who are looking inside the workings of the human brain mostly through functional MRIs. People are placed into MRI scanners while meditating, being mindful, being distracted, etc. The researchers are looking at what is different about long term meditators’ brains as opposed to the brain of someone who has never meditated. Already many things have come to light about compassion, our attachment to our lovers and families, and how the brain can regain equilibrium after stress. Teaching mindfulness for anxiety and depression have gained wide acceptance. Many think the brain is the “final frontier” of science. Clearly there is much more we do not know than we do.

In the early days of research, monks who spent most of their lives meditating were studied. In a slide we saw in a presentation, the monks laughed at the scientist as he demonstrated the multi-channel EEG (electroencephalography-recording of the electrical activity in the brain), sort of a skull cap with multiple leads. Why were the monks laughing? Because they could not understand why the scientist would put something on their head to measure something that has to do with the heart.

It was my “AHA” moment.This was why something felt just a little out of sync for me and suddenly I felt better. I am not a scientist although I love and have studied a good deal of science in my time. I am a teacher and what I teach people is way to suffer less. I have talked about this many times before in this blog but never was it more evident to me. The neuroscience is really exciting, almost seductive, to those of us familiar with evidence based practice and who long for validation by the traditional medical community that these practices work, they are cheap and people benefit in ways we cannot measure from them. But I came to teach mindfulness and Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) 18 years ago because I was a practicing meditator and a nurse and suddenly there was Bill Moyers on TV showing how people at the University of Massachusetts in Worcester were getting relief from their physical and emotional pain by meditating and learning how to be mindful. The pivotal “AHA” moment of my life.

When I teach my classes we talk a lot about the heart. We talk of the heart opening, the heart softening, the heart feeling lighter. Mindfulness is a practice of the heart. I suspect someday we may see the now invisible ties that bind the head and heart on some scanner. I couldn’t help but think of the lines from the Derek Walcott poem “Love After Love:”

The time will come

when, with elation,

you will greet yourself arriving

at your own door…..

Give back your heart

to itself, to the stranger who has loved you

all your life, whom you have ignored

for another, who knows you by heart…

I wish all of these earnest and good people who truly want to find a way to make mindfulness as a treatment more accessible to everyone all the best. I will help and support them in what ever way I can; I will marvel at what they find. Our conference ended with a call to everyone to dedicate the work we do to ending suffering; I hope for that with all my heart.

Writer Lenore Flynn, who taught mindfulness to my students in the "Reading and Writing a Happier Self" class at the University at Albany, SUNY, this past spring, was one of a very select few teachers chosen to attend the Mind and Life Summer Research Institute. A long-time teacher and practitioner of mindfulness, she runs a mindfulness program in Albany at www.solidgroundny.org. This post appeared first in the Albany Times Union's Holistic Health blog. P.S. The rainbow image at the top of this page is not a flying saucer. :)