02 October 2013

The Myths and Realities of How Americans See Themselves

This is the text of a talk given by Susan Nulsen on 26th September 2013 following Timothy Patrick McCarthy on the same topic.

Bio: Susan was born and educated in Australia. Shortly after she married she went to England where she stayed for about nine years from the late 70s to the mid 80s and then also spent another year there in two different stretches during the 90s. She has now spent a similar length of time in the US.

I always look forward to hearing Tim McCarthy speak. He has such insightful things to say. But I quite had the wind taken out of my sails when I heard he needed to leave early and I had to speak after him. He is a very hard act to follow!

As you can see from my bio, I have no qualifications to speak on how Americans see themselves. Almost every one of you is better qualified than me!

So I will start by describing my earliest interactions with Americans, and then tell you some of the myths I learned about America and how my experiences have led me to judge these.

My mother and an Australian friend
The first people I could identify as American were a couple of young women my mother was friends with when we lived in Mount Isa, a small remote copper mining town in Queensland. As a ten year old I had very little interaction with them. However they stood out because they dressed strangely; to my mind they seemed very elegant but very old-fashioned. They wore dresses that stood out stiffly over big petticoats. My mother and her other friends often went around in shorts which were much more suited to the tropical climate.

Some stockmen

Around this time, although there was no television in the town, my family would gather around the radio on Tuesday evenings to listen to a couple of radio shows which often included American westerns. Since Mt Isa was in the middle of cattle country the westerns seemed very appropriate. (I should say that we didn't have “cowboys” or six-shooters; instead the people who strode around in high-heeled riding boots and rounded up the cattle were known as “stockmen”.) So I was already getting a dose of American culture.

The Pine Gap Facility
The first time I met Americans of my own age was when we moved to Alice Springs. These were the children of people working at the “secret” American communications base at Pine Gap. It wasn't very secret, in that everyone in the town knew of its existence, but not even the Australian government knew what information was gathered or relayed from there. The most notable thing about these children was their contagious American accents. It was impossible to talk to them for very long without starting to sound like them yourself.

Also when we lived in Alice Springs my family spent a lot of time going bush on camping trips. On these adventures we seemed to meet a lot of retired Americans travelling around the country in camper vans. Many of these described themselves as “rock hounds” – they collected interesting, often semi-precious, stones. My sister and I were told we could be “pebble pups”. On one of our camping trips we took Bea, an American journalist from Cleveland, with us to see some of the spectacular scenery in the ranges out of Alice Springs. I have no idea how she got in touch with my family – maybe my father had given his contact details to some of the American tourists we had met previously. So it is very possible that my family, through Bea's writing, influenced how some Americans saw Australia.

When I was fourteen I used to wait at the school bus stop with a girl who was absolutely furious with her parents because they had refused to allow a couple of these American tourists to adopt her and take her back home with them! I still don't understand how she couldn't see her parents point of view. Around this time I also made friends with an American girl who lived in a fantasy world. Both her parents worked, which was unusual at that time, and each afternoon she was responsible for caring for her younger siblings. Her thirteen year old sister did nothing to help take care of the two little boys who ran wild! Janice told me all about the exciting life she led on the French Riviera where she had her own speed boat.

I met a few more Americans in high school and at university. As you can see, I had had contact with only a handful of Americans. However I was still exposed to American culture through films, books, cartoons and comic books.

It was when we went to Cambridge in the UK for my husband, Paul, to do his PhD that we met a large number of Americans and became good friends with some. Because of our common language I would also often end up spending time with the American wives at conferences at various places in Europe.

My first visit to the US was when Paul was visiting the Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland as a student. We stayed with an exceedingly generous American couple who put us up for a whole six weeks. During that time I remember being at a barbecue where one person was describing loudly, in graphic detail and at great length his bout of amoebic dysentery. I had never experienced the like. Australians or British would not air their medical problems so publicly.

And the first time I lived in the US was for six months when Paul came for the launch of the Chandra satellite in 1999. We spent six weeks living right in Harvard Square, above the Harvard Book Store and the rest of the time in Newton where my daughter Alix went to high school and my son Luke to the middle school. Girls she met told Alix that she spoke “very good English.”

Finally after I came here in December 2003 I met a large array of Americans, including all of you. I have learnt that the only thing I can say with certainty about Americans is that they are a widely varied group of people and it is impossible to make any generalizations.

Now here are half a dozen myths that I have encountered.
Myth 1: Britain was NOT democratic at the time of the Declaration of Independence. (1776) The UK had been a constitutional monarchy since the Glorious Revolution of 1688 – when James II was replaced by William and Mary – around a hundred years before. It was ruled by an elected Parliament with roots stretching back to the Magna Carta in 1215. At the time of the Revolution, the trouble from the American point of view was that the Americans did not have a vote. Yet I continually hear Americans talking as if Britain had been an absolute monarchy.

Myth 2: America is the most democratic country in the world. Now America certainly set an example to the world with its constitution in the 18th century. However constitutions written since then have been able to draw on others experience. I would like to point out two features of the Australian electoral system that promote a more democratic government. You may have heard me say this before. Preferential voting, which is the equivalent of running multiple run-off elections, eliminating the candidates one by one, provides a much fairer way of voting. Secondly making voting, and registering to vote, compulsory ensures that the outcome of an election is more fair. Just think of all the work that goes into getting out the vote here, and in Britain too.

Furthermore, far from upholding democracy around the world, the US has a history of overthrowing, or working against other countries' democratically elected governments with which it doesn't agree. Think of the Allende government in Chile.

Myth 3: One man, one vote. It is now not “one man, one vote” but “one dollar, one vote”. I know that many of you will agree whole-heartedly with me here. The electoral system has been distorted by the inordinate amounts of money needed to win an election. Politicians are chosen by their ability to raise money and spend too much of their time fund raising.

Also the control of media by wealthy media barons deprives the ordinary person of the tools to make informed choices. This is no better in Australia. Rupert Murdoch is openly boasting that he put Tony Abbot, the new Liberal (what you would call conservative) prime minister into power.

Myth 4: America is God's Own Country. I don't think I need to say anything about this!

But I would like to throw in
Myth 5: Atheists are immoral. As a non-religious person I find this statement very insulting. I have heard this or something which implies this many times – statements such as “I couldn't believe he could do something so evil, he regularly attended church.” If he hadn't attended church then it would have been believable that he could have been evil!

Myth 6: America is the land of opportunity. Anyone by their own hard work can make it rich. Anyone born a citizen can aspire to be president. This is a very dangerous myth. In fact everyone is dependent on the society they have been bought up in, their families, schools the local infrastructure. Many poor people cling to this myth as hope for their own future. If you are poor it can only be because you are lazy or made bad choices. People at the top are being rewarded for merit. Luck plays no part in your fate. If you vote for anything which penalizes the wealthy you might be penalizing yourself in the future. This myth pacifies an underclass and persuades the poor to vote against their own best interests.

I was incredibly shocked the first time I came to Boston to see beggars on the street! In the richest country in the world! It was additionally amazing to see that the numbers of them are military veterans.

Until I left Australia I never dreamt of tipping a waiter at a restaurant. I had been one myself and knew that waiters earned a reasonable wage and the price of the food covered that. I would love it if some restaurants here banned tipping and paid their staff appropriately!

Businesses feel it is in their interests to have a large pool of cheap labor with poor working conditions. So-called “illegal” immigrants provide even cheaper labor. It seems that this whole economy is dependent on these underclasses of people for cheap food, cheap goods and cheap services. A business that depends on a labor force earning less than a living wage should not be a viable business. Government support of low paid people is just another way the government is subsidizing business.

It is a very sad fact that America is an extremely unequal society and it is only becoming more unequal, despite the efforts of many good people.

The final myth I just have to mention is
Myth 7: Americans don't have an accent. Of course the only people who don't have accents are those whose who don't speak! Yet this is something I constantly hear Americans say.

I also find it strange that the accents spoken by the locals along the east coast, the areas that have been longest settled, are looked down upon by speakers of standard American. Recently a Belgian friend and her husband, who have only been here about a year, were asked for directions by an American tourist. After they had told him the way the tourist commented on their “rough Boston accents”!

I should end by saying that although I have tried to point out the fallacies in these myths there is an element of truth in many of them. America is a great country with many resources. Unfortunately it is not fully utilizing its greatest resource, its people. It has an opportunity to set a shining example to the rest of the world and I think it would be a wonderful thing if it did.

—Susan Nulsen

03 September 2013

Sylvia's Plea for Peace

Dear Friends,
          At this critical time in our history it's so important to pull out all the stops and convince our elected officials that We The People will not tolerate another Mideast disaster.  As former Green-Rainbow candidate for President said at last Saturday's rally on the Boston Common, we can win this one.  So let's work through the international community to bring the purveyors of chemical weapons to justice, provide humanitarian aid to the region, take a strong stand for non-violence, and network like there's no tomorrow.
    This letter I'm trying to send to President Obama, Senators Warren and Markey, Representative Capuano, and anyone else I can think of.


All the best, in Love, Peace and Solidarity,



Dear President Obama,

            I am deeply concerned about the prospect of a US military strike in Syria.  What about Article I Section 8 of the Constitution that explicitly gives Congress the authority to declare war?  Since a majority of the American people oppose military intervention there - and by the way put you into office – shouldn’t you pay attention to their wishes?

           It is so ironic that right at the time of commemorating the famous 1973 March on Washington you are on the verge of ignoring its message altogether.  Dr. King stood for job equality and saw the Vietnam War as an assault on humanity.  And as a recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize, how can you go against its very premise?

            Please think very carefully before leading our country into yet another misguided Mideast conflagration.

Thank you.
                                                                        Sylvia Gilman
                                                                                        Cambridge, MA

3 September 2013

30 May 2013

Words of Wisdom

Creativity is the connection to God

Humor is emotional chaos remembered in tranquility

To say yes you have to plunge both hands into life. 
It is easy to say no even if no means death

Nothing is to be had for nothing

Pride is the mask of our own faults

Always do right. It will gratify some people and amaze others

Seek the truth and the truth shall set you free

Exuberance is beauty

Never be in a hurry. Do everything calmly and in a calm spirit

Who can find a virtuous woman? Her value is above rubies. 
She works in wool and flax and works willingly with her hands

Competitions are for horses not artists

It is better to begin in the evening that not at all

What loneliness is more lonely than distrust?

Laughter is the beginning of prayer

They do not love who do not show their love

Life is short, art long; judgement difficult

For everything there is a season, a time to be born and a time to die

War does not determine who is right, only who is left

The older the man, the faster he ran as a boy

There is no bad mood that fresh air and exercise can’t mend

You cannot build a reputation on the things you are going to do

What if?

Never be so focused on what you are looking for that you overlook what you find

The answers you get depend on the questions you ask

Love is above all a gift of yourself

Spirituality is applied poetry

It is better to be alone than to be in bad company

We are all self made, but only the successful admit it

This too shall pass

Brevity is the sister of talent

Do not be afraid

Love kindness

—collected by Emmy Robertson

(for printing)

07 May 2013

Beautiful reflection by a Zen monk who grew up in Newtown, CT

Fred Small posted a beautiful reflection by a Zen monk who grew up in Newtown, CT on his Facebook page.  Here is the link: http://m.facebook.com/note.php?note_id=10151253731627513&refsrc=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.facebook.com%2Fn%2F&src=email_notif

This is a reflection by Zen monk Douglas Bachman (Br. Phap Luu), who grew up in Newtown, CT.  Thanks to my friend John Bell for sharing it with me.
Fred Small

Saturday, 15th of December, 2012
Dharma Cloud Temple
Plum Village

Dear Adam,

Let me start by saying that I wish for you to find peace. It would be easy just to call you a monster and condemn you for evermore, but I don't think that would help either of us. Given what you have done, I realize that peace may not be easy to find. In a fit of rage, delusion and fear—yes, above all else, I think, fear—you thought that killing was a way out. It was clearly a powerful emotion that drove you from your mother's dead body to massacre children and staff of Sandy Hook School and to turn the gun in the end on yourself. You decided that the game was over.

But the game is not over, though you are dead. You didn't find a way out of your anger and loneliness. You live on in other forms, in the torn families and their despair, in the violation of their trust, in the gaping wound in a community, and in the countless articles and news reports spilling across the country and the world—yes, you live on even in me. I was also a young boy who grew up in Newtown. Now I am a Zen Buddhist monk. I see you quite clearly in me now, continued in the legacy of your actions, and I see that in death you have not become free.

You know, I used to play soccer on the school field outside the room where you died, when I was the age of the children you killed. Our team was the Eagles, and we won our division that year. My mom still keeps the trophy stashed in a box. To be honest, I was and am not much of a soccer player. I've known winning, but I've also known losing, and being picked last for a spot on the team. I think you've known this too—the pain of rejection, isolation and loneliness. Loneliness too strong to bear.

You are not alone in feeling this. When loneliness comes up it is so easy to seek refuge in a virtual world of computers and films, but do these really help or only increase our isolation? In our drive to be more connected, have we lost our true connection?

I want to know what you did with your loneliness. Did you ever, like me, cope by walking in the forests that cover our town? I know well the slope that cuts from that school to the stream, shrouded by beech and white pine. It makes up the landscape of my mind. I remember well the thrill of heading out alone on a path winding its way—to Treadwell Park! At that time it felt like a magical path, one of many secrets I discovered throughout those forests, some still hidden. Did you ever lean your face on the rough furrows of an oak's bark, feeling its solid heartwood and tranquil vibrancy? Did you ever play in the course of a stream, making pools with the stones as if of this stretch you were king? Did you ever experience the healing, connection and peace that comes with such moments, like I often did?

Or did your loneliness know only screens, with dancing figures of light at the bid of your will? How many false lives have you lived, how many shots fired, bombs exploded and lives lost in video games and movies?

By killing yourself at the age of 20, you never gave yourself the chance to grow up and experience a sense of how life's wonders can bring happiness. I know at your  age I hadn't yet seen how to do this.

I am 37 now, about the age my teacher, the Buddha, realized there was a way out of suffering. I am not enlightened. This morning, when I heard the news, and read the words of my shocked classmates, within minutes a wave of sorrow arose, and I wept. Then I walked a bit further, into the woods skirting our monastery, and in the wet, winter cold of France, beside the laurel, I cried again. I cried for the children, for the teachers, for their families. But I also cried for you, Adam, because I think that I know you, though I know we have never met. I think that I know the landscape of your mind, because it is the landscape of my mind.

I don't think you hated those children, or that you even hated your mother. I think you hated your loneliness.

I cried because I have failed you. I have failed to show you how to cry. I have failed to sit and listen to you without judging or reacting. Like many of my peers, I left Newtown at seventeen, brimming with confidence and purpose, with the congratulations of friends and the approbation of my elders. I was one of the many young people who left, and in leaving we left others, including you, just born, behind. In that sense I am a part of the culture that failed you. I didn't know yet what a community was, or that I was a part of one, until I no longer had it, and so desperately needed it.

I have failed to be one of the ones who could have been there to sit and listen to you. I was not there to help you to breathe and become aware of your strong emotions, to help you to see that you are more than just an emotion.

But I am also certain that others in the community cared for you, loved you. Did you know it?

In eighth grade I lived in terror of a classmate and his anger. It was the first time I knew aggression. No computer screen or television gave a way out, but my imagination and books. I dreamt myself a great wizard, blasting fireballs down the school corridor, so he would fear and respect me. Did you dream like this too?

The way out of being a victim is not to become the destroyer. No matter how great your loneliness, how heavy your despair, you, like each one of us, still have the capacity to be awake, to be free, to be happy, without being the cause of anyone's sorrow. You didn't know that, or couldn't see that, and so you chose to destroy. We were not skillful enough to help you see a way out.

With this terrible act you have let us know.  Now I am listening, we are all listening, to you crying out from the hell of your misunderstanding. You are not alone, and you are not gone. And you may not be at peace until we can stop all our busyness, our quest for power, money or sex, our lives of fear and worry, and really listen to you, Adam, to be a friend, a brother, to you. With a good friend like that your loneliness might not have overwhelmed you.

But we needed your help too, Adam. You needed to let us know that you were suffering, and that is not easy to do. It means overcoming pride, and that takes courage and humility. Because you were unable to do this, you have left a heavy legacy for generations to come. If we cannot learn how to connect with you and understand the loneliness, rage and despair you felt—which also lie deep and sometimes hidden within each one of us—not by connecting through Facebook or Twitter or email or telephone, but by really sitting with you and opening our hearts to you, your rage will manifest again in yet unforeseen forms.

Now we know you are there. You are not random, or an aberration. Let your action move us to find a path out of the loneliness within each one of us. I have learned to use awareness of my breath to recognize and transform these overwhelming emotions, but I hope that every man, woman or child does not need to go halfway across the world to become a monk to learn how to do this. As a community we need to sit down and learn how to cherish life, not with gun-checks and security, but by being fully present for one another, by being truly there for one another. For me, this is the way to restore harmony to our communion.

Douglas Bachman (Br. Phap Luu)
who grew up at 22 Lake Rd. in Newtown, CT., is a Buddhist monk and student of the Vietnamese Zen Master and monk Thich Nhat Hanh. As part of an international community, he teaches Applied Ethics and the art of mindful living to students and school teachers. He lives in Plum Village Monastery, in Thenac, France.