Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Christmas Special: Oppression in Rudolph's story

Having grown up in New England I have a weakness for Christmas songs in the winter, even when condensation on the window stays liquid on the coldest Oakland nights. Listening to the latest pop rendition of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer got me thinking: why does a bullied outcast need the blessing of an old white man authority to gain social status?

Considering the history of the evolution of life, and complexity in general, it's clear that diversity drives complexity as conditions inevitably change. The shift from a carbon-dioxide-rich atmosphere to an oxygenated one wiped out most bacterial life as photosynthesis flourished. In every mass extinction that followed, it was niche creatures that survived and through luck and adaptation replenished new habitats. This is the inherent, proven value of diversity.

(I could add that as sentient beings capable of ethical analysis and behavior, it's our calling to defend life and diversity against less capable forces. That's not central to my argument in this post, though.)

A better question might be, how did Santa and the dim-nosed reindeer ever get through Christmases without some sort of fog illumination? And how did reindeer society become so conformist, anyway?

Recently a white coworker remarked to an Arab coworker and me that he couldn't make sense of racism and, if one looks for reason, shouldn't our darker skin be considered better for its protection against sunburn? I found this rough reasoning: the definition of race is perceived to be pigmented skin, which is valuable to a fair-skinned "normal" person, rather than the overwhelming inherent value of diversity among people of color or the absolute value of familial ties... I could go on. No, thanks, I don't need your authoritative evaluation of my dark skin for my racial value.

Merry Christmas! Oh, and if you think I'm getting a bit unhinged, I assure you, I've newly replaced them:

Friday, November 28, 2014

Seeds of virtue: how I'm moving forward after news from Ferguson

A Kingian nonviolence trainer once showed how our conventional emotional reaction is to direct anger at people and reserve compassion for conditions, e.g. poverty and illness.

anger --------------------> people

compassion ------------> conditions

Yet this is unhelpful; to maximize our force against injustice we must cross the arrows. Direct anger at conditions such as economic inequality and racism, not at people who are involved in these unfortunate and unnecessary conditions. 

Applying compassion unconditionally to people is possible and empowering. I know because I have tried it. Beginning with myself, the effect of recognizing every individual's weaknesses and virtues is deep calm and kindness. I have yet to encounter a human being without a seed of virtue. It is conceptually impossible: the worst behaviors arise from a set of terrible conditions, such as abandonment, abuse, and ostracism, which nurse our worst seeds. I know that I am capable of terrible deeds because I have done them in the past and sometimes consider doing them in the present. I, too, have these seeds in me, and by being aware of ugly thoughts arising and choosing to behave in more helpful ways, I keep those seeds harmless. Helpful actions nurse my virtuous seeds, growing them and letting virtuous seeds go into the world around me. 

Sure, directing anger at a person feels satisfying on an instinctive level. What kind of seeds do we nurse in ourselves and those around us through anger at a person? I experience this when I am alone, replaying a scene where cruelty or injustice played out in my life. My heart races, muscles clench, and mind spins. In those moments I'm watering my worst seeds. 

It's hard to turn against emotional convention. By practicing awareness, though, I'm finding it easier and faster every time -- and in a reality with racism, sexism, and other institutions of oppression there will be many opportunities to practice. I notice sooner when I'm tending harmful crops, and let them go. I turn my attention to the greatest potential in myself and others, even perhaps in the person who did a harmful act. They live in conditions, and acted under conditions. Terrible conditions cause terrible suffering and deserve our righteous indignation. We can change conditions.

It helps me, too, to find that nothing in existence is permanent and unchanging, so social injustice, too, will one day end. It wasn't our choice to be in human form now, while conditions diminish our individual and collective potential to create joy, beauty, and innovation, but it is up to us to decide how we move in our lifetime toward an end to suffering. Hardly a generation ago Chinese were prohibited from immigrating; blacks were denied their right to vote. The righting of such wrongs are ongoing; virtuous acts by those who fought harmful conditions continue in us as we benefit. Similarly, our virtuous acts today and tomorrow, however small, will continue as benefit to those around us.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Jury Duty: Oppression in our Courts

Last week I was summoned for jury duty at Wiley W. Manuel courthouse in Oakland. Over a grueling 4-day course of jury selection, I witnessed the following signs of institutional oppression.

  • Only 3-5 of the approximately 100 jurors who initially showed up were black.
  • Most of the jurors in the waiting room were working and dressed in business attire, some on laptops, suggesting they were gainfully employed professionals enjoying middle class or higher incomes.
  • As the charges in the case pertained to domestic violence, sexual battery, and police testimony, most jurors with direct experience with victims and perps and with abusive police were excused. Many of these were women who more commonly access the confidence of victims. To be unaware of friends and acquaintances who have been victims and perps is a privilege of ignorance.
  • All but two of the approximately 60 jurors examined held at least a bachelor's degree. The two who finished high school (but were gainfully employed) were excused.
  • None of the selected jurors were black. The defendant was an African Muslim immigrant.
  • During a brief recess near the conclusion of the selection process, a small white woman struck up a conversation with me in complaining that, if selected, it would waste her vacation pay. Another juror and I mentioned unrepresentative demographics of the jurors who had been examined so far. The woman remarked, "At least the jury will be smart!" Not having been examined yet, I must conclude she assumed I was college-educated based on my appearance. (She was subsequently excused.)
In order to live in a large group of people, we agree to curtail certain individual freedoms to empower a governing body to maintain an appropriate order of law. In crafting this law we must prioritize fairness -- the concept that anyone, regardless of the conditions of their birth, would be treated equally. This doesn't mean that we are born into equal conditions; quite the opposite. The concentration of unearned privilege in a jury results in unfair treatment of those whose struggles are incomprehensible to privileged minds. 

To enjoy the benefit of order of law, it truly is a duty for every citizen to report for service. Every election year, we work hard to enact and improve legislation to be most beneficial -- it's up to courts and jury to make real on these words.

I was disturbed by the jury selection process that I witnessed and am trying to contact the ACLU Voting Rights attorney to follow up. A few years ago the ACLU complained that by restricting their jury address database to DMV and Registrar of Voters records, citizens who most frequently move without updating those agencies -- low-income blacks and Latinos -- would be under-represented in juries. The article outlines measures that have helped other court districts in the past. It is my intention that Alameda County will update the way it contacts its own citizens to create juries that are truly of our peers.

Saturday, November 1, 2014

My ballot guide for Oakland, CA 2014

Vote on Tuesday! Here are my picks and research.

Governor: Jerry Brown

Lieutenant Governor: Gavin Newsom

Secretary of State: Pete Peterson
It's important to me to support progressive Republicans and in this race, there isn't enough difference between the candidates' positions to do otherwise. Peterson sounds committed to long-term improvement in election, campaign finance, and business registration. Padilla, on the other hand, is a weaker speaker and sounds hobbled by his own party.

Controller: Betty Yee
Comprehensive tax code reform, yes! attention to climate change, which has already begun to wreak destruction on the poorest and most historically oppressed parts of the world and this state, yes. Swearengin wouldn't be a total loss: she is more focused on debt reduction and business friendliness.

Treasurer: ??
I didn't like either candidate when they interviewed on Forum. It's a shame top-two now means no write-in. Conlon's platform appeals mostly to retirees and investors, but Chiang's current office as State Controller has been criticized for corruption.

Attorney General: Kamala Harris
Despite Gold's activism in teacher tenure challenges and open support of marijuana taxation and regulation I'm with an Attorney General who personally opposes the death penalty. Harris also refused to defend Prop 8 against same-sex marriage. We can hope Harris's work against recidivism (repeat prisoners) progresses in another term.

Insurance Commissioner: Dave Jones
Most of us think of health insurance when we consider regulating insurance companies, but this office shares that responsibility with the governor. The Republican challenger, Gaines, is clearly on the side of the companies being regulated and investigated for fraud and I don't trust him.

Member, State Board of Equalization 2nd District: Fiona Ma
It's hard to get enough info about the candidates to support either candidate strongly. Ma plays the race and gender card in her campaign, referencing challenges in her career in finance and tax administration.

US Rep: Barbara Lee
The only Congressperson with the chutzpah and insight to "nay" the 2001 Authorization for the Use of Military Force that continues the longest war in this nation's history. 'Nuff said.

State Assembly, 18th District: Rob Bonta
Another unfortunately tepid contest -- the incumbent has over $1 million from funders all over the country and the challenger is unconvincing. Again, sorry not to have a write-in option.

State Justices: No for all
It's hard to get a read on desirable traits of justices. Here is the only info I could dig up. I don't feel I can decide whether they would do a good job based on their biographical information, but perhaps you would settle for those in same-sex relationships (Stewart and Humes) or people of color (Jenkins, Liu, Cuellar?).

State School Superintendant: Marshall Tuck
This position's power lies primarily in its visibility in leading public conversation on teacher tenure and other education reform. Incumbent Torlakson was a classroom teacher and has Sierra Club endorsement and funding from SEIU, a teacher's union. Tuck has a more unconventional work history managing charter schools in LA and campaigns on much-needed reform. Worth a shot.

County School Superintendant: Karen Monroe
This is the run-off after the June primary election. Monroe lists arts reintegration as one of her top three priorities and Foster doesn't present any convincing change.

Peralta College Trustee: Richard Fuentes
This race is so boring Rob Bonta endorsed both candidates. There's nothing offensive in either campaign and both candidates show passion for the community colleges. I'm going with Fuentes because of his inside experience with immigrant learners.

AC Transit Director: Dollene Jones
The incumbent might be a schmuck and never showed up to campaign after securing labor's open endorsement, against SEIU 1021's block. Jones is the only candidate who is making any attempt to campaign. In an election that's not top-vote-getter-takes-all I would write in but want to make sure incumbent Young is kicked out.

Prop 1: Yes
This is a timely, partial compromise between utilities and sustainability.

Prop 2: Yes
The school reserve cap is an unwelcome insertion but the lack of State rainy day funds since 2004 needs to be resolved.

Prop 45: No
Remember how the Insurance Commissioner above shares power with the Governor in regulating health insurance companies? This would place all the power in the Commissioner's position. He wants all the power! The administration of this proposition is messy because it was written for the 2012 election, and I'd rather see how the ACA works out with the current shared system.

Prop 46: Yes
Counter the wave of doctor and insurance campaign money. I never go to work under the influence, and I expect the same of medical professionals.

Prop 47: Yes
Fight institutional racism and California's shameful prison industrial complex. Here's a much better way to spend our prison funds.

Prop 48: No
This is a tough call since terms for building the casino include revenue sharing with a non-casino-revenue tribe. I'm making it because of my personal refusal to support gambling and a "yes" would mean the project could skip certain environmental assessment requirements.

Measure N
: Yes
A 63% high school graduation is revolting. This parcel tax needs 2/3 majority to pass.

Measure Z: No
Growing up under Party rule in Beijing, China, I was conditioned to trust and respect police. This adds another layer of discomfort and betrayal to my every experience of police corruption and abuse, and these layers have not been eased by OPD's failure to reform. Other emergency services are important, but I don't welcome the City every time it comes hat-in-hand. Also, the police chief didn't return repeated emails about bike safety.

Alameda Measure BB: Yes
Endorsed by Sierra Club for improving non-motor transportation infrastructure.

Oakland Measure CC: Yes
We have an Ethics Committee with no teeth and no funding?

Measure DD: Yes
Councilmembers should not draw their own districts.

Measure EE: Yes
This affects 22 people but they will get all their pensions for the city to save admin money, so cool it.

Measure FF: Yes
Not quite living wage, but a step up.

Oakland Mayor: 1 Dan Siegel  2 Saied Karamooz  3 Sam Washington (write-in)

By far the most exciting race in a boring year. I rejected the incumbent Quan for a disappointing tenure and also Kaplan and Schaff for poor performance on the City Council. I recently emailed their offices twice complaining to the Police Chief for non-enforcement of the 3-foot bike passing distance and had no response at all. And Kaplan campaigns on her merit as a biker! Unbelievable. Also Schaff canceled for a debate at Oakland Nights Live. Tuman is way too stodgy for me; my housemate greeted him at the door and ended their conversation by informing him he is fascist.

That leaves a scrappy bunch, headed by Siegel -- a friend objected to voting for a white man but I point out that no civil rights movement ever succeeded without the cooperation of oppressor-group activists. Currently a civil-rights lawyer, he registered blacks in Mississippi in the '60s and sports a well-crafted, community-oriented platform. Karamooz has the most cogent platform of the remaining candidates, and Washington also shows awareness of the kind of law enforcement reform we need. Climate change is a top threat in the next 50-100 years (meaning middle-class Americans will be struggling to find enough food to eat) so it's helpful to see Siegel and Karamooz answer with intelligence here.

Oakland Auditor: no confidence (write-in)
Neither candidate is convincing. Roberts has the endorsement of tons of interest groups and officials.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Home Theater Festival at the Intersection of Trash

This weekend I hosted a fun workshop/show in my bedroom. I've been interested in Americans' casual treatment of trash and waste of all kinds, and wanted to play with sounds that we regularly discard. I guided the small audience through a meditation on listening to "silence" and on freeing the movement of the body. Then they pulled prepared instructions from a gray bag at semi-random intervals and a wonderful piece ensued.

A great sheet of packaging paper was shaken and ripped, an analog phone was dismantled, crystal glasses and crude string instruments with bucket resonators were played in all manners. In this selection you can hear one member using a riding crop.

This is the full photo of visual responses the players left:

The light is poor now so I will add photos of the instruments made from trash later. I feel gratitude for the resplendent creativity shown by everyone present. I have heard that some attendees have listened with greater care and appreciation since the show, and hope to develop it for future audiences.

For more information about the festival, go to

Saturday, March 22, 2014

If gender is a concept, imagine what reality remains.

I played these instructions for eating meditation for my coworkers at a science museum yesterday. You can seek to 14:45 and play about 6 minutes. Kornfield uses raisins but you can use a small bite of any food.

Scientists and Buddhists equally value the practice of simple observation, noticing without preconception. For scientists this allows us to collect unbiased evidence and form realistic explanations. For example, in the meditation we see not a raisin-concept but the shapes and colors and shades that exist; feel the weight and textures that are really there. I invite you now to see that gender is a constructed concept and what exists is the richer, true world of different bodies and behaviors and experiences. This is a world of wonder to which, through years of rough practice, I have awakened.

It's been rough because there has been until recently* little  guidance available on the road to observation while the gender-concept rampantly rules society. It dictates our treatment at school, wardrobe, wages, right to vote and inherit, place in the household, place in bed, vulnerability to violence, and access to expression and affection. Society created this concept and I see that it is, unlike the raisin, 100% harmful. Nature makes a full spectrum of bodies and sexual phenotypes; humans no longer live and fuck for reproduction primarily.

Upon birth, our first instructions are a wrong concept: "it's a boy" or "it's a girl," a concept with the power to smother our inborn ability for simple observation. It catches us into a life built around false concepts and inattention to existence. Any mathematician or physicist would concur that a false assumption can block one from understanding the whole of reality.

Once we achieve simple observation, the next step is to discern between helpful and useless thoughts and actions. It's too late to stop the Nazis destroying gender-inclusive Berlin culture and medical advances or to go public with Britain's WWII computer to speed the internet's union of queer community by over ten years. We can change our language of gender conformity, include youth and others, and turn toward the reality of suffering and loss in our own communities. It's the right thing to do.

We each have a unique toolbox of community-building activities and attitudes. We just have to remind each other to wake up and use it.

*I feel confident that any Gender Studies expert would agree with the simple observation that gender is a construct rather than a natural phenomenon.

Sunday, March 2, 2014

Park Review: Mount Diablo State Park

Yesterday I attempted the summit of our local lone peak, Mount Diablo. An easy bike ride from Walnut Creek BART station, the southwest trailhead at Macedo Ranch is shared with cows and calves. The cow path is difficult to negotiate, especially when it's wet. This trail is signed Wall to Summit Trail, though the transition is unclear between some low shrubs and grassy hillside. Trail guides claim the loop I took was just over 6 miles, but it was much harder and I was thoroughly exhausted and sore after 6 hours.

Due to the drought the Park announced water would be shut off, but the restrooms at the trailhead were open. I carried and drank almost all of the 3 liters I carried. I was unprepared, though, for the chill and violent wind at the peak, 3,500 feet. For this you may want a spacesuit. My hands swelled and ears popped on the way down.

I watched gorgeous cloud cover pass overhead, sometimes threatening to bring distant rain close. I was delighted by the interpretive signs marking the K-T boundary, mollusk fossils, and other rock layers. There were some poppies and purple daisies as well as a flowering shrub already in bloom. The burned areas were interesting to traverse, charred on the outside and sprouting about the roots and sometimes limbs.

Nothing compares to the views. Even though the clouds covered the horizon beyond the San Bruno mountains, I saw farther than I'd expected. My technology swallowed the few photos I took.

I don't know why I'm not there every weekend! I'll be back again soon.

Saturday, February 22, 2014

The trains between: my vacation spanning Oakland, New York, Toronto, and Vancouver

The world is rich with wonders, if only we would awaken to them. Recovered scripts from an ancient landfill quotes Jesus: "The kingdom of the Father is spread out upon the earth, and men do not see it."

I traveled by train across the United States and Canada over the Spring Festival partly for vacation, partly to prepare my mind for silent meditation retreat later this year.

By train there's no missing reality: even in  our own region there are industrial sites in Richmond and Martinez full of wildlife displaced from residential and commercial development living on toxins. Timber lies in the midst of the most trees I've ever seen and oil rigs nods the music of our consumption across the prairie. We wait for hours for freight trains to pass single track segments; they have priority because they own and maintain these tracks with their fat profits. They carry familiar shipping containers, often with the shipping lines' names painted alongside. More often they drag great black tanks of oil and gas across farms and through mountains. Near Nebraska and West Virginia their open carts are piled high with coal. I redouble my effort to use less.

In Colorado a wildlife-watching couple joined me in the observation cart and encouraged me to search for charismatic megafauna. My sketchbook pages filled with deer, elk, hawks, and even moose.

Ontario impressed me with a full day and night of dense woodland. A resident informed me the boreal forests there compare favorably with the Amazon in carbon sequestration. They, too, are yielding to the saw.

Are there words to describe the Rockies? I struggle to imagine these colossal peaks rising still, year after year, pushed by colliding continental plates. They will continue rising and crumbling after we are long gone.

To pass eleven days and nine nights speeding by rail, I listened to little music, no more than 90 minutes, and watched no video. I read only after darkness, Musicophilia by Oliver Sacks. Music gently rippled through my consciousness in the final days of the journey. Yet I felt a vast relief from any pressure of production, any image of what a composer ought to do and be. Indeed, I felt freer than ever from any definition of being other than present in the moment as I took in the sensory beauty of the surroundings and turned my kind wishes to every being around me, human, animal, rock; old, fleeting, growing.

Indeed, it's a paradise, if only we dare to recognize our place in it, to engage it here.

Sunday, January 12, 2014

DIY chest stand from a wine box

I picked up a nice wine box from the curb a year ago and used it as a floor laptop desk and printer stand for a while. Lately I've rearranged my room so I find myself removing the printer every time I use it, so it's time for a change. I originally wanted to make another two-level shelf, but couldn't decide on the dimensions and crossbeam structure. Why make it harder than necessary? I can always make another shelf when I decide what I want.

The wine box was a perfect project to add height and floor space. Since I don't usually saw precisely, I cut and filed the long legs and finally mixed glue and sawdust on a short leg. Each one is attached by a single screw through the thin side of the box. Predrilling was a bit tricky but makes the screwing smoother.

No cuts or splinters this time! Got a diy project to share? Please post in the comments.