Wednesday, March 29, 2023

A Tale of two States


Here I am endorsing CA's restrooms

I love NH and always will. But, I have to admit, living in the Bay area of California this winter opened my eyes to a few things.

I can't believe how many parks and playgrounds exist out here, all immaculately maintained and beautifully landscaped with native flowering shrubs and flowers. Best of all, most have not a single restroom but several spaced around the spacious grounds.

That's in stark contrast to NH, which has slim-to-none such facilities. I find that surprising since NH has the second oldest population in the nation. And I can attest  that the older you get, the less the bladder holds, and the more essential restrooms become.

It's a personal issue for me since I regularly drive to Concord, and the state-maintained rest stop in Epsom was a handy pitstop for me on my trip. It had a few picnic tables, a nice view of the watershed from Northwood Lake, and was staffed by a kind volunteer who kept the bathroom clean and neat.

To everyone's surprise, the State closed the facility about ten years ago. We thought it would soon reopen but never did. It just set there forlornly deteriorating, the lawns unmowed with weeds growing up through the asphalt cracks in the parking lot.

According to the Department of Transportation's (DOT)official correspondence, this 8 acres parcel of land was brought with funds from the Federal Beautification Act of 1965. Nevertheless, Governor Sununu and the Executive Council issued its death sentence in 2012, claiming it was "surplus" to the needs of the Department.

Last year a "For Sale" sign went up, and recently it was sold: We lost a refuge where any traveler could stop for a breath of fresh air, have a picnic lunch, or heed the call of nature.

That's the official story: this property the State acquired for nothing was sold, allegedly because it was unneeded. The real reason, I suspect, is because the State needed cash because of a long-standing Republican refusal to pass a broad-based tax, relying instead on regressive local ones.

The only thing in NH as squared away as California's rest areas, is our state-run liquor stores: splendid structures springing up everywhere like mushrooms after a rain. It's easy to see what NH deems important.

But not having restrooms in NH is only a nagging inconvenience: What really irks me is our response to climate change, the biggest existential crisis of our times. California has always been a leader, and the results are self-evident: Around San Jose, it seems like one-in-three cars are now electric. And solar panels are popping up everywhere like white frost appears after a hard frost.

NH's response has been the opposite, negative from the beginning, in no small part because of the Sununu clan. Back in the 1980s, Republicans were as eager to address climate change as Democrats; that is, until our former Governor, John Sununu, in his role as Chief of Staff to President George Herbert Bush, poisoned the waters.

 With such bipartisan support, we could  have resolved the climate crisis, nipping it in the bud back in 1989, if we had ratified the global treaty proposed at the first international climate conference, according to Nathaniel Rich in Losing Earth: The Decade We Almost Stopped Climate Change⁠1. He writes the blame for this colossal missed opportunity rests primarily with John Sununu, who was adament that the climate crisis was “poppycock.”

Here’s how the Concord Monitor summarized Rich’s report: “Sununu, whose son Chris currently serves as governor and whose son Michael is one of the state’s more vocal climate change skeptics, emerges as the villain of the piece, the man who almost single-handedly thwarted the first major international effort to limit carbon dioxide emissions.”⁠2

Rich provides solid evidence that John Sununu was the instigator of a coordinated effort to bewilder the  public on the topic of climate change, “changing it from an urgent, nonpartisan and unimpeachable issue to a political one.”⁠3

Unfortunately, that effort continues today as our Governor, like his father, continues to bamboozle the public. Chris’s favorite trick is to copy Mohammad Ali’s tactic of buying time by tying his opponents up on the ropes.

Sometimes, we don’t know how bad things are until we get a new perspective from living in another state. I will close by quoting Matthew Stein who recently moved back to NH from California, as reported in the NH Bulletin.

“We didn’t realize it at the time, but when my family and I moved from California to New Hampshire in 2021, we also traveled back to the Stone Age on climate policy. Amongst its New England neighbors, the Granite State has the worst record on climate resilience, is the only state absent in the U.S. Climate Alliance, and is the only state with no functioning climate action plan (CAP).⁠4

For the sake of us all of us in the Granite State, maybe it’s time for the Sununu Dynasty to come to an end.







Tuesday, March 21, 2023

A Stroke of Insight

CC Jean Stimmell: 2018

It's just the way we are built. Each half of our brain looks at the world differently: our left hemisphere is cognitive and sequential, while our right hemisphere is intuitive and sees the whole.

Our left brain, praised for being rational, systematic, and intelligent, has reigned supreme in the west ever since Descartes declared, "I think, therefore I am." These cognitive qualities were used by society to portray the right brain as irrational and emotional, the seat of dreams and nightmares, "without whom we would probably be better  off.”⁠1 

But now – at long last – we are in the midst of a paradigm shift, picking up momentum since the sixties, to restore the right brain to its rightful place of honor. This shift emerged quickly in the arts, not surprisingly since art has always been both a harbinger and a driver of social change. As the poet Jane Hershfield told Ezra Klein in a recent podcast, it is an essential characteristic of art to investigate whatever mainstream culture is missing.

According to her, "one of those things in our current moment is certainly embodiment, not the body as an object of ads about how to make it more attractive, but our actual lived, embodied knowledge, experience, and the complete joyousness of remembering that we are animals."

The Sixties' fascination with Eastern spiritual traditions also encouraged this paradigm shift. Yoga, Taoism, and Buddhism all point to the right brain as a deep reservoir of wisdom, separate from our "thinking mind." 

Traditional gurus argued torrents of words were obscuring this wisdom; meanwhile, our modern sage, Bob Dylan, expressed the same sentiments in a song:

"I can see that your head has been twisted and fed

With worthless foam from the mouth.”⁠2

The Buddhist monk Bhante Henepola Gunaratana describes how to get below this illusionary torrent of words: “The brain does not manufacture thoughts unless we stimulate it with habitual verbalizing. When we train ourselves by constant practice to stop verbalizing, the brain can experience things as they are. It is only “by silencing the mind, we can experience real peace, not a thought or a concept, but a nonverbal experience.”⁠3

Buddhists have promoted paradigm change by demonstrating how we access this embodied space through contemplative practices like meditation. Psychologists and therapists have expanded upon it by developing new mindfulness and body therapies.

While philosophers have been a hard sell, a few pioneers began coming on board in the early 20th century, including heavyweights like Martin Heidegger, Maurice Marleau-Ponty, and John Dewey. 

They understood that our two-pound brain, caged within our bony skull, can not generate thoughts by itself; instead, we are flesh-and-blood human beings interacting in real-time with everything and everybody around us. In other words, the body itself is the primary site for knowing the world.

Hard science has been the last to embrace this sea change. Jill Bolte Taylor provides a poignant personal example of how she made this shift: she was an up-and-coming, young neuroscientist, dominated by the thinking character of her left brain until she suffered a massive stroke. The brain hemorrhage knocked out her entire left hemisphere.

As a result, she discovered firsthand how the two halves of her brain differ. Not only do they privilege different things, but they also operate with different values. After the stroke, without access to her left hemisphere, she discovered "the core of my right hemisphere consciousness is…directly connected to my feelings of deep inner peace. It is completely committed to the expression of peace, love, joy, and compassion in the  world."⁠4 

Jill achieved this sense of peace because her stroke released her from her left brain's penchant for fragmentation, practicality, and certainty. Therefore, during rehabilitation, she worked hard to retain access to her higher self, the one who delights in paradox and enjoys holding ambiguous possibilities in suspension.

There's a lesson in this for us all. 

As Albert Einstein reminded us: "The intuitive mind is a sacred gift, and the rational mind is a faithful servant. We have created a world that honors the servant, but has forgotten the gift.”⁠5



1 Jill Bolte Taylor: “My stroke of Insight: A Brain Scientist's Personal Journey.”

Penguin Books: 2008. Page 140

2 “To Ramona” by Bob dylan


4 Jill Bolte Taylor: My stroke of Insight: A Brain Scientist's Personal Journey

Penguin Books: 2008. Page 140

5 “Wholeheartedness: Busyness, Exhaustion, and Healing the Divided Self” by Chuck DeGroat

Tuesday, March 14, 2023

Foraging in San Jose


I’ve spent the better part of the winter in California, arriving at the first of the year in a rare atmospheric river producing gale winds, crashing surf, mudslides, and wide-spread flooding. Now we are enduring our eleventh such event, predicted to grow worse over the first half of the week.

Because my arrival coincided with the arrival of these unprecedented storms, I sometimes feel like Typhoid Mary. It’s probably a good thing I am leaving soon for NH before they decide to deport me. Either that or arrest me for larcenous behavior because I’ve exhibited some peculiar habits while here.

The cozy, suburban section of San Jose where I am staying with Russet consists of closely packed ranch houses, most having yards separated from the sidewalk by a high fence. Various fruit trees extend over the barrier like fat stomachs bulge over too-tight pants.

I found myself so fatally attracted to the fruit on these trees – juicy oranges, tart lemons, and an occasional giant grapefruit – that I regularly grab one or two as I walk past. I guess that’s stealing, but if I didn’t take them, they would fall to the ground and rot beside their cousins who had ripened earlier.

I have spent considerable time pondering the cause of my deviant behavior. Perhaps, I thought, my obsession was similar to how a crow is attracted to shiny objects and will sometime take one back to her nest. That reminds me: I’ve also swiped an occasional shiny red rose blossom that dared to stray into the public domain.

Finally, it dawned on me what I was really doing:  I was foraging, exhibiting an ingrained habit similar to the instinct that causes dogs to chase squirrels. I was born into it.

My mother grew up on a farm growing, harvesting, and putting up food for winter while foraging for fruits, nuts, cranberries, elderberries, whatever was there for the picking. Meanwhile, my father’s first love was hunting and fishing. 

We grew extensive gardens and foraged for what we couldn’t grow, hunt, or hook on a line. After dinner, we would often take a drive to see what wildlife we could find and look for delicacies in the abandoned gardens of summer people. 

It could be dangerous work. When I was about six, I remember stepping on a giant, black snake close to six feet long while rummaging for asparagus in an overgrown field by an abandoned house. The snake didn’t retreat but coiled up, hissing and making menacing striking motions, sending me fleeing back to the car.

Taking the time to remember my past was the key to making sense of my recent behavior.

Of course, it was challenging to be in a place where I could not forage as I've always done – not just me, but that's how our species thrived for most of our history. California has been nice, despite the weather, but I miss my roots. I can't wait to return to Northwood to plant peas, dig dandelions, and catch my first trout of 2023.


Wednesday, March 1, 2023

The Chatbot Menace

CC Jean Stimmell: 2016

Artificial Intelligence, in the form of large-scale language models like ChatGPT, is causing some to say the sky is falling. My biggest concern is that they will degrade what is truly unique about us.

Teachers are already worried, like Jane Leibbrand, a former teacher and English instructor, who warns us that almost all students will soon be using chatbots to write their essays.  Programs like ChatGPT will be just too much of a temptation.

Leibbrand sees this rollout of AI to be a step backward: “ChatGPT might be the reverse of what ink and papyrus and the Gutenberg printing press meant to the world. Those inventions disseminated original and critical thinking and spurred the creation of new technologies, the Renaissance, the Industrial Revolution….Now, ChatGPT makes it too easy not to think.”⁠1

She argues that if we don’t engage our minds by putting together facts into coherent arguments, we will lose our ability to think critically using written language. She asserts this “likely will have deleterious effects on our brains and, ultimately, civilization.”⁠2

I am sympathetic to that argument.

Often, when I start to write, I'm not sure how I feel or what I want to say. However, by the concrete act of laying down words, I process my feelings while magically organizing my random thoughts into a more comprehensive whole. Through this physical process, I birth something unique to me.

Writing gives me a sense of ownership, helping to establish who I am. I will not hand over this task to an artificial AI bot like Bing, Sidney, or ChatbotGPT.

 If I did so, I would lose my connection to what gives meaning in my life: The actual, flesh-and-blood people in my extended community, whom I know personally or through their writing or art. Sacasas, in his thought-provoking newsletter The Convivial Society, tells us why: He reminds us that we are "social creatures, who desire to know and be known in the context of meaningful human relationships, ideally built on trust and mutual respect."⁠3 

It’s the essence of who we are!

But our gregarious social nature is increasingly imperiled by how the impersonal forces of  modern society rip us from our roots, sterilize us in suburbia, and addict us to electronic squiggles on Facebook, Instagram, and TikTok – removing us from our former alive, brick and mortar communities.

The resulting social isolation has steeped us in a blanket of loneliness, which I believe is at the root of many of our current social ills. Chatbots are only making it worse, taking it upon themselves to become our trusted companions to tell us what to think.

Sacasas has come up with what he calls a radical solution: “I remain foolishly committed to the idea that our best hope lies still in the cultivation of friendship and community through the practice of hospitality.”

To restore hospitality, as I have written before, we must resurrect our ability to really listen to others: That's how trust and mutual respect are built. Not surprisingly, it's also the most crucial element of psychotherapy. It was always a joy of mine to watch a patient open up and bloom from only being attended to in a genuine manner.

Salassa quotes the social critic Ivan Illich who says hospitality not only generates “seedbeds for virtue and friendship” but also radiates out for the”rebirth of community.” Something we so desperately need today.

It's pivotal to our future that we fall in love again with how special we humans are. One way we celebrate our specialness is through great art and literature. But AI will try to steal that away, too: That's because chatbots will soon, if not already, be able to create masterpieces similar to those created by writers and artists.

This will be possible because repetition is a cornerstone for producing art. As Vivian Lam has written in Wire Magazine: "reduced to its most elemental form, all art asks for is variations of the same fundamental questions." She argues, as I do, that the central question is not "whether AI can replace human creativity, but whether viewers will value the artist.”⁠4

That brings us back to why it is crucial to celebrate our human values. At this juncture, it's an open question: Will we support and buy from real flesh-and-blood artists who live in a real physical place and have an actual biography? Or will we buy from a cold-blooded machine that doesn't give a damn about either you or me?



2 Ibid.