Friday, June 19, 2009

Nobel Laureate, Aung San Suu Kyi

Today is Burmese Nobel Laureate, Aung San Suu Kyi's 64th birthday, which she is spending in prison. Last month, she was taken from her home, where she had been under house arrest off and on over the past two decades, and imprisoned because of an odd incident where an American man swam to her residence and tried to meet with her. The military junta of Myanmar claimed this incident violated the terms of her house arrest.

Aung San Suu Kyi is the leader of the National League for Democracy in Burma. She has steadfastly urged nonviolent resistance to the dictatorial military junta in Myanmar. She was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991.

Suu Kyi is included on the "peace wheel of fortune" that our Nonmilitary Options group has used in the high schools this past year. Of all the students who tried out the wheel, only one knew who she was, because he had written a report about her (and, I must say, he was a Quaker). We realized Suu Kyi would be unknown to most students, but thought there would be some recognition because of the massive nonviolent marches by the Burmese monks in the fall of '07. Not so. We hope we increased her name recognition even a little. My Nonmilitary Options colleague, Hart, had laminated a newspaper photo from '07 showing a line of robed, unarmed monks facing a line of black-clad heavily armed soldiers. He showed it to students at our table, asking them, "who looks more afraid?"

There is greater attention on Burma from other parts of the world than from the US. I think world attention and Aung San Suu Kyi's insistence on nonviolence is what has preserved her life, so I believe more could be done in the US to highlight the oppression in Burma through the media and through US diplomatic pressure.

Obviously, there are some human rights violations in the world that the US is more willing to address than others. It's important to ask why. In this case, I expect the reasons mostly involve US relations with China. When US debt to China is so high and keeps growing, there become certain issues to which the US is willing to turn a blind eye.

In honor of Aung San Suu Kyi's birthday, there are events being held today around the world. If the US media helped publicize these as they are the expressions for democratic reform in Iran, the regime in Myanmar might have to pay attention.

Great reforms could be achieved in Burma/Myanmar. After 27 years in prison, Nelson Mandela emerged to become South Africa's first black president. Economic and diplomatic pressure from around the world made a difference, as did Mandela's, like Suu Kyi's, continued adherence to nonviolent resistance.
photo of Aung San Suu Kyi from wikipedia

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Line items

Following on a green theme ... whoa, it's like living in a virtual clothes drier this week. I happen to love hanging out laundry -- it's my favorite of all household tasks. I do it year-round. It's a mystery to me why more folks in Austin don't air dry their laundry. I think AAS writer, Denise Gamino wrote an article about this once. She, too, is a devotee of the clothespin and open air.
I guess I come by it naturally. My folks, in their 80's and living in Wisconsin, still hang out their laundry as often as weather permits, and through the winter, they hang it on lines strung in their basement. For us, it's partly frugality and a desire to be green, as well as a preference for the fresh outdoor fragrance and the exercise. But we also like the way it looks.
Oh, I know, some people object. When I first heard of neighborhoods actually prohibiting clotheslines, I was shocked, especially in a southern climate where getting to hang laundry outdoors where it will dry quickly is at least one benefit of our scorchers.
To me, laundry on a line is beautiful, so it sometimes becomes my subject matter. Above is a drawing from this week's napkins drying beyond our zinnia patch. Who's to say they are not also prayer flags?
If you don't already know the joys of a clothesline, put our sun and wind to good use and create something beautiful and green (along with other colors) in your own yard!
drawing by makingpeace

Going green in San Francisco

A recent article in the Austin American-Statesman described the recycling and composting program in the green vanguard of San Francisco.
A couple of days ago, I ran into one of my neighbors, who lives part of the year in that fair city, and I asked her if she liked the recycing process there, and how it worked for her as a resident.
She wrote back with a great description of the program from her perspective, and, by permission, I post it here:

I am glad you asked me about composting in San Francisco. I love it! The City has made it very easy for apartment dwellers to compost, and I'd love to tell you about it.
As you may know, San Francisco is truly a leader among cities when it comes to waste disposal reduction. We have recycled for years and now are composting. In fact, I just read in the paper recently that the City will be hiring some trash cops to go around and make sure that people are truly recycling and composting. In San Francisco, recycling and composting are mandatory, not optional.
I live in a large, downtown apartment building. Earlier this spring, the City started a campaign to distribute recycling equipment (not much is needed, just a bucket and some "green" garbage bags, i.e., bags that are made out of something biodegradable, like corn).
I was home one day and answered a knock on my apartment door. I opened it to find a young woman with curly hair and jeans who looked like she'd just gotten home from a Peace Corps stint abroad. She explained to me that the City was commencing its recycling program and that my building was now a part of it. She handed me a small green bucket, one even more diminutive than my kitchen trash. In fact, my recycling bucket may only be one gallon. It is made out of a green mesh plastic. The City also provided a starter supply of recycling bags. (Weeks later, after I ran out, I was able to get new ones at my nearby Whole Foods Market. I understand that they are available in lots of places, including Walgreens.)
San Francisco is composting just about anything edible. Because the City also requires all restaurants to use biodegradable takeout containers, we are also composting coffee cups and napkins and plates and spoons. If one does not eat that leftover Chinese food, into the compost it goes, container and all!
Now that I am both recycling (including all paper and all rigid plastic) and composting in my apartment, my trash is reduced to nearly nothing. As soon as I buy some of those cloth produce sacks, I will hardly be throwing anything away. Sadly, plastic produce bags are my trash downfall....
My apartment building has a trash chute on every floor down which we launch our garbage bags to the basement. But, in order to recycle and compost, I have to go down the rickety back stairs of my 1920s Art Deco building, into the basement, where I deposit my paper bag full of recyclables and my bio bag full of food and soiled food containers into their respective blue and green bins.
It's not the highlight of my day but it seems like such little effort for a large return. And I am delighted to see that people in my building are recycling and composting in droves. I hope that someday I'll be able to buy a condo in a more modern building. I understand that the City is now requiring new residential construction to build in three chutes, one each for trash, recycling, and composting

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Flag Day

Sunday was Flag Day. I've seen quite a few nice peace flags over the years, and especially now with the peace sign back in full force, I thought I'd sketch a flag design that includes something about what peace involves (above).

I feel as though I've stepped back about 40 years in time, seeing the peace sign ubiquitous again!
I remember about 10 years ago, our Nonmilitary Options for Youth group brought one of our first literature displays to Austin High School to ask the counselors there if they would place the display next to the recruiting literature. We had permission from the district to make our materials available to students in the high schools. The counselors at Austin HS held a meeting to decide about our display, and we were told later that they would take the literature, but not our (home-made) literature holder. Why not? Because one of the counselors put his foot down, saying the peace sign on the display was "too controversial." They designated a shelf for us instead. I wonder what that counselor thinks now with every other student wearing peace symbols -- and probably some of the counselors, too!

The peace sign turned 50 years old last year. It was designed by Gerald Holtom, a British conscientious objector and textile designer, for use during an Easter march against nuclear weapons in England. Holtom used the semaphore signals for N and D (for nuclear disarmament), overlapping them to form one symbol. The logo caught on quickly and spread to the US not long after.
Long may she wave.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Roll on, Bikers

Maybe I was a biker chick in a former life. Maybe I am one now. In either case, it was pretty thrilling to be standing at the corner of Cesar Chavez and Congress Avenue last evening as the thousands of bikers turned the corner onto our main drag along their parade route from the Exposition Center. It was even worth inhaling all that exhaust to be so close to the rumble.

In fact, a group of us dressed in pink biker duds and pink police uniforms were part of the spectacle. We decided to bring a Peace/Stop War message to the biker audience to see how it played. And we were heartened by the overwhelmingly positive reaction from the crowd that rolled by.

I held a sign reading "Biker Chicks for Peace" along with our black, denim and pink-clad entourage, and two of us wore pink police uniforms and held a large "Stop War" sign in the shape of a stop sign. As the bikers passed by, the majority flashed peace signs back at us, smiling and nodding in response. The women, especially.

Now, we did have our eyes peeled for even one pair where the woman drove and the man sat in back. We spotted one three-wheeler with a woman at the throttle and a man in back, but he seemed to be a designated videographer, so we weren't sure that counted. One of these days, there's going to be a brave pair who will break the taboo -- and then, maybe the dam will break and real men everywhere will want to prove their manliness by handing the controls to a woman -- and not back-seat drive, either....

Hey, a biker chick can dream. And we did see quite a few women riding solo.

I was impressed with the care bikers had to take to ride so close to each other in a parade of that size. And, as I walked up and down Congress afterward to take a closer look at the bikes, I marvelled at how they kept their machines so shiny and pristine, many of the bikers having traveled many dusty miles to attend the rally.

There's certainly an allure to the motorcycle and the open road. Maybe it's also the artistry of the bikes, and the riskiness of the ride. A bike that got a lot of attention was toting a trailer in the shape of a coffin that had, "A Ride To Die For" written in script on the side. Riders are both extra tough and extra vulnerable, as the tragic accident later that night on US 290 attests.
As I rode home on my trusty bicycle, I did appreciate the quietness of my ride and the lack of fumes. I'm most in love with my green machine. But, I wish the best for the bikers who roll a different way.
Thanks to Heidi Turpin for the photos!

Friday, June 12, 2009

Cindy Sheehan visits Austin

When I entered the Unitarian Church on Wednesday evening to hear Cindy Sheehan speak about her new online book, "Myth America," I saw Cindy in a hallway studying a framed poster of "100 Unitarian Universalists Who Made a Difference." She gave me a hug (though she doesn't really know me), and we looked at the poster together, noting some people we hadn't known were Unitarians -- astronaut, Laurel Clark, for example, who was killed in the space shuttle Columbia accident in 2003. And author, Sylvia Plath. Samuel Taylor Coleridge, my father's dissertation subject, was a Unitarian. And, of course, Thoreau. Cindy noticed how many were writers. In the lower right corner of the poster was a little mirror, subtitled, "You here."
"I'm a Universalist," said Cindy, looking in the mirror. "But I don't think I'm a Unitarian."

In the church sanctuary, Thom the World Poet coincidentally - or not - riffed on these themes in his free form poetry and word play, backed by musicians improvising along with him. He urged attendees to fill the front pews first, to recognize the uniqueness of this evening, of this particular selection of people, which would never be gathered quite this way again. We are unique beings, single units, but we are also part of a whole, indivisible from one another. Fences, barriers, borders, are constructs. Separation is illusion. "Let's de-program, unprogram, re-program," said Thom, noting that we were not holding programs in this congregation.

Displayed in back of the altar where Cindy spoke were three verticle banners, part of the church decor. The first read, "To Come Alive." The middle banner read, "To Seek Truth," and the third, "To Heal Our World." Coincidentally - or not - the banners became perfect headings for what she had to say, in just that order.

"People tell me I should just get on with my life," Cindy said. Do they just want her to fade away? The death of her son, Casey propelled her into the peace movement and his death is part of her life still. Parents whose children have died for any reason report similar feelings -- life never gets "back to normal." Outliving a child is not the normal course of things. And, as Cindy says, "There can't be healing until there's accountability."

Cindy described her visit two days prior to the street in Dallas where the former president has retired. She carried a sign asking the same straightforward question she brought to the gates of the Bush ranch in August 2005: "For What Noble Cause?" In the face of a "let's move forward" climate that would like to bury the memory of her son, Cindy's insistence on accountability, "even if we don't succeed," she says, is a way to not forget Casey.

If the former president won't face the question of causes of war, the answers keep Cindy up at night. She said that she began writing her new book when the title sprang into her head one night and she decided she'd better get up and just start typing. She settled on addressing ten myths that she felt she had been taught about the US, and as she travels on her book tour, she keeps adding to the list in her talks.

In this book, Cindy divides Americans into two classes: the "robber class," and, of course, "the robbed." While I don't find it helpful to categorize people like this, I can't deny many of the facets of truth about theft, nor the pervasiveness of the myths she explores. The first myth she names, "The USA is the greatest country in the universe" finds overt and subtle expression in our churches, schools, families ... even in our new, more universalist president's addresses to the world.

I agree that class divisions are the most significant of all the divisions American's have created in this country, despite the "everyone could pull themselves up by their bootstraps" mantra and our meltingpot history. And I agree that wars usually serve to profit the wealthy, increasing the distance between the very wealthy and the very poor. But, I also think there is responsibility to be shared among most Americans. Who is a robber, really? Is it the CEO of Halliburton or Xe? How about the person who knowingly buys stock in companies that profit from war? Or the teacher whose retirement benefits come partly from investments in banks, or insurance companies, or oil companies or weapons manufacturers? Most of us, maybe all of us, are tied into some level of complicity, and I think it's instructive to consider how, rather than divide ourselves into perpetrator and victim. In important ways, most of us are both.

Actually, Cindy seems to address this point in her book's "revolution conclusion." She said she wanted to leave her readers with suggestions for positive action. Examples she cited in her talk at the Unitarian Church included: work at the local level in politics, "where it has some effect"; take savings out of the big banks and establish accounts in credit unions; stop using credit cards; simplify possesions; buy local. In such ways, we each seek accountability rather than wait for former or even current presidents to do it.

Although Cindy and I are the same age, we have traveled different life paths, and her conclusions echo the ones I reached in the 1980's when I first moved to Austin after college. I have never used credit cards, for example, but I was also privileged to be able to attend college without student loans because my father was a professor. I didn't have children, so it's been easier to lower my living expenses and to stop driving a car. I haven't had to live with the pain of the death of a child, so it's easier for me to see our former president as a man who should be tried for war crimes, but not labeled "a murderer."

What I appreciate most about Cindy Sheehan's continuing activism is that she is not afraid to stand up to what whe sees as wrong-doing. She speaks and writes plainly and with humor, too. She hasn't, as many would like her to do, just gone away. If a democracy, as Pete Seeger says, rests on an obligation to participate, Cindy has done that. She knows her First Amendment rights, and she uses them. She is an eager student of history and has embraced the methods of historical nonviolent movements.

In many ways, there are and have been grassroots movements rising up in the US which are now acknowledged as being so mainstream that the major media have jumped on the bandwagon to amplify them. News about green building, supporting local business, growing more food at home, supporting public transportation, recycling, increasing bicycle use ... all this is becoming the rule rather than the exception, and it's happening because it really must.

Will war collapse of its own dead weight, like the big banks, insurers and auto makers? As people withdraw their support from the pillars of war and establish alternative, sustainable economies, will the US withdraw military forces from Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan and its hundreds of bases worldwide because there is simply no more money for or interest in retaining them?

I don't know. The drive for power, to retain power, is very strong, but so is the power of necessity. Maybe we will become true Universalists because we must acknowledge our reliance on our common planet's resources. We will never unite about everything, but our diversity is what makes us healthy. Different paths seem to be converging into shared conclusions. Every person's experience is one's own truth, yet because we are all parts of the whole, we see that our experiences are intermingled in countless ways. Sharing our stories is the opposite of robbery. Seeking truth can heal the world, and we can live on.

Monday, June 1, 2009

Health care for all

On Saturday afternoon, May 30, I went down to City Hall to attend the rally sponsored by Healthcare for All Texans. I heard that mayor-elect, Lee Leffingwell and councilmember, Mike Martinez spoke just before I arrived, and it's encouraging that they support a Single Payer plan. Several other speakers were health care professionals who support a Single Payer system based on their work experience.
I was disappointed that the rally wasn't mentioned in yesterday's Austin American-Statesman. Although Single Payer plans are successful elsewhere in the world, US insurance and pharmaceutical lobbies are exerting their influence to deny consideration of HR 676/S703.

The main refrain from speakers at the rally: universal health care is a universal right. There were a few people who stood along Cesar Chavez St. with opposing messages. One man's sign read, "Health care is NOT a right." Some rally attendees engaged these folks in discussion to try to figure out what they meant by that. A friend of mine who talked with them said that they didn't mean that people who are sick should not be cared for, but they didn't think others should have to pay for it. But on the question of who would pay, they weren't clear. They mentioned they were tea-partiers on April 15, when, as covered in this blog, I and others offered a different message at the post office that evening: money for health care could easily be found in the war budget. It's a matter of priorities.

There will always be difficult ethical questions when it comes to health care- such as when personal health habits impact health care costs. But, it does help to examine some examples before us. We in the US have come to agree that veterans should be given health benefits even after their service is over (although it wasn't always like that, and veterans and their families had to work very hard - and often still do - to gain their right to health care.) We've come to agree that the elderly and differently abled people have a right to health care. And that people with no money to pay aren't turned away. Our general trajectory over time has been to expand care, not constrict it. So, let's continue in that direction and make it universal. Drawing lines between who is and isn't eligible is proving unworkable.

"I've got mine" is an attitude that prevents many from speaking out on the subject of universal health care coverage.
But the speakers at the rally, most of whom are insured, I gathered from those I talked to, were taking the time to advocate for health care as a human right for all. "As long as we have air in our lungs, we have a voice," said one of the representatives of Healthcare for All Texans. As though to prove her point, a nurse who followed her on stage breathed from an oxygen tank that she carried on her back as she spoke movingly about her patients as well as her own health situation.
The rally included music, as rallies in Austin must do. The very tasteful 3-piece guy band, Voyces, kept things lively with some 60's numbers, including some Bob Dylan. Hearing the lines, "How does it feel -- to be on your own?" took on extra meaning as we considered the issue of the day.