Saturday, December 31, 2011

The Tsunami and the Cherry Blossom

A haunting and important reminder of the importance of fully inhabiting each moment. The film clip below, from a documentary called The Tsunami and the Cherry Blossom, uses a disaster to remind us all of "the ephemeral nature of life and the healing power of Japan's most beloved flower."

The Tsunami and the Cherry Blossom Trailer from Tsunami Blossom on Vimeo.

"Even when the flower falls, we love it. That's the heart of the Japanese person. Flowers dying is not a sad thing."

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

The View From Here: Mirror Mirror Edition

The side streets of Cambridge were unusually quiet this morning while Maggie and I were walking into the office. Out of the corner of my eye I caught a glimpse of something that seemed out of place. Upon closer examination we discovered this very large bird (a hawk?) contemplating it's own reflection. 

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Light Show Spectacular

This one came to me by my friend at Fang Shui Canines. The 3D light show was projected on the Kharkiv Regional Administration building during the Ukrainian Independence Day celebration on August 24th.

Enjoy--it's pretty amazing!

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Rape, Injustice "Facts," and a Call to Better Scholarship

Those of you who regularly pay attention to me on Twitter know that I go a little crazy over items presented as "facts" that are either not referenced or not verifiable. I've seen way too many examples of blatant misinformation spread as well as generally smart people who become misinformed vectors spreading about even more misinformation.

Take for example the Twitter entity known as InjusticeFacts. They describe themselves as "an open, circulating database of facts that deal with the injustices which plague our world." In general, I think the idea is great. There are copious amounts of horrible injustices that happen in the world. Many of us have no idea that they are occurring. Consciousness raising is an important tool of social change, and I'm glad Injustice Facts is doing some of that work.

My complaint is that Injustice Facts offers up sloppy scholarship. People can provide them "facts" through their website. The organizers of the website then disseminate those facts. Are the facts vetted? Are there references that are made available so we know that the fact is true? 

No. At lest Injustice Facts does not explicitly say they do fact checking. The organization also doesn't not respond to Tweets asking if they fact check.

Arguably, good scholarship involves checking out the veracity of information. Not everyone does that. I think an organization or person who presents things as facts has some responsibility to actually verify whether facts are facts -- or if they are propaganda. We've become too trusting, and have rapidly lost our ability to critically think about the world around us.

Yesterday, someone who  I follow on Twitter re-tweeted this:

 Injustice Facts 

29 women out of every 100,000 are raped in the U.S. each year, 1.6 women out of every 100,000 are raped in Canada each year.

My (somewhat snarky) response :

 Jason Mihalko 

.  I usually like my facts with a side of references.

My twitter follower's response, which has since been deleted by the follower, was "Questioning rape facts. Classy." I of course wasn't questioning rape. Violence is a despicable thing, and a good deal of my work as a psychologist is with women and men who have endured sexual violence. My complaint was about a disembodied fact--without reference, context, or verification--being represented as truth.

The snark probably obscured my message a bit.

I continued (I edited a few auto correct errors from my original tweets):

 Jason Mihalko 

I question our collective lack of critical thinking about information that is presented without reference  

 Jason Mihalko 

Why should I believe stats that aren't verified? That is not questioning rape. Its demanding good scholarship 

My twitter follower elected to unfollow me and ignore my responses. A shame, really, as she and I probably agree more than we disagree. I also think, by the way, that it's important to regularly be exposed to people who think differently than me. It makes my world bigger, richer and more diverse.

I've taken it upon myself to do a little fact checking. The UN's statistics for forcible rape in the United States for 2009 was 28.6 per 100,000 people. The count for Canada? 1.5 per 100,000 people. Ms. Magazine has put together a helpful table to demonstrate how difficult it is to get accurate statistics on rape. Scary, sad, and heartbreaking reading.

In this case Injustice Facts were accurate facts (there was a little rounding that happened). To be a more worthwhile source of information, and a trustworthy source of information, a simple addition of a reference would change everything.

It really isn't good enough to say something is true "because I said so." It's poor scholarship, breeds misinformation, and has the potential for great harm.

We need to be critical thinkers. We need to question what we read. We need to search out references to know that the facts we see are accurate and not propaganda. We need to be better scholars.

That is my point. I'm sad my Twitter follower didn't stick around long enough to hear me out.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

A Moment of Racism Frozen in Time

I came across this image some time ago and have been thinking a lot about it. I don't know the particulars of the image (perhaps a reader will?). What stands out to me is the horror of the image as well as a reminder of the racism that is inherent in how our criminal justice system metes out "punishment."

What do you think? More importantly, what do you see?

Sunday, December 11, 2011

When a spade is not a shovel

from the 11th Hour
My first dissertation chair, Glenda Russell, had a thing about words. She loved them. That was for sure. She also was very interested in the imagery and meanings that were embedded deep within the words. A casual mention once about "black ice" brought us into a long conversation about how many things in our culture that are considered negative or bad utilize dark or black as descriptive words--and how deeply that is often intertwined with overt (or covert) racism. Another time, when I suggested we don't skirt around an issue, a conversation was launched about my un-examined sexism.

Sometimes, it was a bit much. Most of the time, however, it helped me think very deeply about how my choice of language can sometimes reinforce imagery, ideas, and ideologies that I'm not interested in reinforcing.

I found myself channeling Glenda this week. A friend of mine tweeted that we have more serious problems in this world when we can't call a spade a spade. I said we have more serious problems in this world when we forget that a spade isn't always a shovel. Unless of course you actually are referring to a shovel.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Compassion Round Up: Trains, Columbine, Inner Gardens, and More...

Compassion on the 10:40 Train

My heart smiled at this simple act of kindness. I'm still not sure why I was so surprised. Maybe I've just had skeptics around me for too know, the people who assume that every homeless person is just a lazy drug addict with no desire to ever get a job and contribute to society like the rest of us hard-working Americans. Whatever the reason may be, I was thankful to have witnessed it.

'Rachel's Challenge' brings a message of compassion

Following the Columbine High School shootings in 1999, the father of 17-year-old Rachel Scott, the first student killed in the massacre, began an organization called Rachel's Challenge, which tours the country promoting an anti-bullying message of kindness and compassion for others.

Finding love and compassion in our inner garden

Readers will find much to reflect on, especially on the subject of the inner garden. After all, this seems the only place to find understanding and compassion. While we'd all like to do a walking meditation in the woods, pick wildflowers along the way as well as bamboo branches for flower arrangements, the majority of us cannot afford the time to enjoy that environment. So it is incumbent on each of us to find our own gardens, and appreciate the peace and miracle of where we are.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Happy Birthday, Ryan

Happy birthday, Ryan White. Today would have been your 40th birthday.

I recently came across a BBC story about Ryan's life. It dawned on me that most people under 40 have probably have never heard of Ryan. If you have, you probably know his name as part of the federal government's Ryan White CARE Act.  You probably don't remember the raw hate that was directed toward this little boy.

I remember hearing about him on the periphery. He and I are of the same generation. As he was using his life to "stand in solidarity with thousands of HIV-positive women and men," I was just starting to emerge from my own self-centered adolescence and waking up to the world around me. It really wasn't until two years after Ryan died that I understood what HIV/AIDS was.

I didn't learn about HIV/AIDS from a comprehensive sex education program in my high school. Things like that weren't discussed in my public school. How did I learn? I literally tripped over it. Just barely 20 years old, I was living in a tiny one room apartment on 44th and Broadway in New York City. In order to go grocery shopping, I walked down 44th across Broadway over toward Hell's Kitchen.

On July 14, 1992 I literally tripped over one of the largest AIDS protests of the time. United for AIDS Action and ACT-UP timed a massive gathering to bring awareness to the needs of people with HIV and AIDS to coincide with the Democratic National Convention held in Manhattan that week. The protest brought, depending on the estimate, between 10,000 and 50,000 people.

I never got to the grocery store that day. When I tried to cross Times Square a sea of people had gone down on the ground to stage a die-in. I looked for some images but couldn't find any. It was an amazing sight. These were in the days before digital photography and cell phone cameras.

It was a strange time. Fear was abundant as well as an ample amount of hate and ignorance. Death permeated that air, too. Not a day went by without a news report of the death of a famous person from AIDS.

It's worth taking the time to listen to the ten minute BBC program if you haven't heard of Ryan White. If you do remember him, it's worth listening to again.

In 1984, the year Ryan White was diagnosed with AIDS, I was in an American history class. While Ryan was living a life that would become all of our shared history, I learned an important lesson (yes, there are a few important lessons from junior high history!). Dorothea Krenz, my teacher, walked around shaking each of our hands. She rattled off various important figures from history. Most of them, I believe, were notable figures from World War II. The details have faded over the past 27 years, but the point of the exercise has stuck with me. History is personal. It connects and links us together across space and time.

History serves as a good reminder about where we were, where we are, and where we might still yet go.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

The View From Here: Day Into Night Edition

Middle School is Rough

This morning I came across this clip of Jonah Mowry. In disembodied academic conversations about bullying, or in the disassociated way politicians often speak about it, we forget about the very real impact bullying has on real people. It's worth watching.

Here, by the way, is just one example of how politicians obscure the personal dimension of the impact of bullying to further a particular agenda.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Happiness, Revealed

If you watch anything today, make it this.

"And so I wish  you will open your heart to all these blessings, and let them flow through you. Then everyone who you meet on this day will be blessed by you. Just by your eyes, by your smile, by your touch. Just by your presence. Let the gratefulness overflow into blessing all around you. And then, it will really be, a good day."

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Learning to Live on World AIDS Day

Unknown Source
Today I've been thinking about my very first patients. While I had worked for nearly a decade in a variety of human service agencies, it wasn't until 1997 that I sat down in my very first office with my very first patients. I remember the day very clearly. My first patient said:
"I just have three questions for you. Are you gay, are you HIV positive, and if you aren't, who the hell do you think you are trying to talk to me."
With those words, I started  my work at The Free Medical Clinic of Greater Cleveland. It was a tumultuous two years. The man who hired me quit the day I started, constant organizational upheaval nearly unraveled me, I was impaired by bad fashion sense, and thought it was a good idea to sponge paint my office in shades of pink. Most of my patients were always on the brink of death or actually died, and a suprising number of them sprang back to life as newer medicines changed the face of HIV treatment.

Most importantly, I spent two years trying to answer that patient's question: who the hell did I think I was trying to talk to people. I found my answer those two years working at the Free Clinic. My experiences there helped me weave together things that I had been thinking about and experiencing for the previous nine years. My experiences became the foundation of what I've built my entire clinical practice on.

I learned that most people don't know themselves, are afraid of themselves, or have otherwise become so traumatized by life that they have disengaged from the world. Not feeling, not living, I found that the people I worked with were neither here nor there. They were somewhere in between. They were, as I affectionately called them, the walking dead. Zombies.

One man, in particular, has filled my thoughts today on World AIDS Day. He really was the walking dead. Infected with HIV before HIV even had a name, he had suffered every opportunistic infection there was. He rattled off stories of countless hospital says and harrowing near death experiences. Somehow, he lived.

On bad days he was use a walker to get into my office--his leg on fire from neuropathy. On good days we would walk across the street together and sit in the beautifully manicured Lake View Cemetery. We had this conversation on the day I was leaving the clinic to move to New England and start my doctoral work:
"Jason, I think of you as more than a therapist. This will sound strange, but I think of you as my funeral director. In you letting me talk so much about death, and keeping me focused so I didn't look away, you taught me how to live. You did that. You taught me to be alive before I die."
Years later I heard through the grapevine that he had died. After being one of the first patients diagnosed with AIDS and having had a trial of nearly every medication, his body had finally failed and he died.

When he said goodbye to me I wished I would have known myself well enough to tell him this:
By sitting with you as you looked at death, I too found how to live.
So on this World AIDS day I'm filled with many warm cherished memories of this patient--and all the other men (and two woman) who came into my office every week as we stared down death every day only to discover how to live.

Each of you live on with me in my office every day. Thank you.

Family, Iowa Style

Stories, up close and personal, have the power to change the world. Here is one such story.

I hope there are a lot more young people like Zach Wahls out there who are learning to use their voices and their stories to be agents of powerful change.

"The sense of family comes from the commitment we make to each other. To work through the hard times so we can enjoy the good ones. It comes from the love that binds us. That's what makes a family."

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Radical Acceptance Meets the Longfellow Bridge

Photo courtesy: Mark Parkinson
The number of trucks meeting their demise under the bridges spanning over Memorial Drive and Storrow Drive are a source of constant amusement. The entrance ramps are well marked. As you see in these images, even the bridges themselves are well marked.

Still, every year there are endless backups caused by trucks getting stuck under the bridges. These stories generally happen over Labor Day weekend. It's one of the largest moving days in the Boston area: it seems that up to the third of the denizens of the metropolitan area take to the road to move someplace new.

The story usually goes something like this: an out of town family is moving their young adult into a college dorm and aren't aware of how high their moving truck/how low the bridge clearance is. Mayhem ensues and I'm likely to find myself in a traffic jam that stretches all the way to the New Hampshire border (no joke, years ago I was in a traffic jam that spanned from Wellesley MA all the way into Nashua NH).

As you can see from the above picture, it happened again. This was the scene from this morning.

A reminder about Radical Acceptance seems to be a useful at this point. In DBT (dialectical behavior therapy) we teach the importance of letting go of fighting reality. We teach the importance of accepting our situations for what they are. The bridges are clearly marked, they have a certain specific height, and vehicles have a certain specific height.

I can hear the conversations in the trucks. "Do you think we can fit? I think we can. Let's try it." The results, as you can see, often involve a terrible accident or the roof of a truck shaved off. 

A too tall truck is never going to fit underneath a too short bridge. It'll get stuck every time. Our nature, of course, is to think that we are different, we are special, or somehow the laws of physics don't apply. 

Radical acceptance demands we accept that trucks are never going to fit. 

What's my point? There is more to radical acceptance. In the rush of pop psychology to co-opt ancient traditions of mindfulness and acceptance, many have  missed the point. I see a many therapists, especially those new to DBT, get this wrong: they focus on just one part of accepting reality. A too tall truck will get stuck under a too short bridge. A Chinese restaurant will never serve you Italian food. Don't bother asking. It's never going to happen. Radical acceptance.

It's an error that popular psychology (and many who purport to provide DBT) is replete with.  Here is how we fail. We forget that it is part of our human nature to be ridiculous. We forget that we will be irrational and demand that a Chinese restaurant serve us Italian food. We become indignant when our moving trucks get the top of them shaved off by a bridge. 

We forget that radical acceptance includes accepting the parts of us that are ridiculous. That is what can set us free. 

We might laugh at images like this truck with a shaved top. I often do. We might think we are better than the thoughtless drivers. I frequently do. We aren't (and I'm not), and until we can accept our own ridiculousness, we'll remain trapped.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

It's Time: Marriage Matters (and so does equality)

The road to equality is long and its obstacles can seem insurmountable. Not today. "It's time", 1,225,000 views and counting....

From GetUP! Action for Australia

Saturday, November 26, 2011

The View From Here: Fort Hill Park

Fort Hill Park c. 1907
It was unseasonably warm yesterday afternoon. With the temperature hovering in the mid 60s it seemed to be an ideal day to take Maggie the Therapy Dog for a little impromptu therapy dog visit outside the grocery store. Maggie gets some great opportunities to have short interactions with a variety of people in a novel situation, she gets a lot of attention, and a lot of people smile. As those of you who are regular followers of the therapy dog, she is super outgoing--and she also has a few strange phobias left over from some negative interactions with a vet. The more exposure she gets to men with beards, the less concerned she is about men with beards. A win-win situation, don't you think?

On the way home we took a detour to Fort Hill Park, which is on the outskirts of Lowell Massachusetts. I tweeted a picture from the top of the hill and a follower on Twitter commented that the tops of both trees had fallen off. I got to wondering how that happened, and how it happened that there was a park at all. I thought I'd spend a little time doing some research about the origins of the public space.

Fort Hill Park, Lowell Massachusetts 
The Friends of Rogers Fort Hill Park provided the following helpful timeline. I've taken it upon myself to link the timeline with some helpful resources. 

A thoughtful reader will note that the land was given to Margaret Winthrop (daughter of Governor John Winthrop)  in 1649. No mention was made of the people who lived here before that. We hear about them indirectly in this timeline. The first mention of the native peoples living in the Merrimack Valley was in 1653, when John Eliot asked the general court to set aside the land for "christian" or "praying" natives. The time line takes us to 1669, a full 20 years after this land was given way to Margaret, and we finally get a direct mention of the original owners of the land, the Pawtucket Indians. They created a fort on the top of the hill to protect themselves from attacks by the Mohawk tribe.

Hidden here is a story of the displacement of the native people of America. A sad story worth remembering. It's also sad how little information I could find (at least easily find) about these first people.
  • 1649 The General Court of England granted 300 acres of land to Margaret Winthrop, which was bounded on the west by the Concord River and on the north by the Merrimack River; Fort hill was part of the territory.
  • 1653 John Eliot petitioned the General Court to set aside land for the exclusive use of the “Christian” or “Praying” Indians.
  • 1669 Wannalancit, son of Passaconaway and chief of the Pawtucket Indians had his people build a fort and palisade atop Fort Hill for protection against potential Mohawk attacks.
  • 1714 John Boland purchased 250 acres of land, which included Fort Hill.  The Pawtucket Indians are left with only hunting and fishing rights on the land.
  • 1805 Zadock Rogers bought 247 acres of land for $5,200.  He was 31 years old [he apparently died the same year he bought the land].
  • 1826 On March 1, Lowell is incorporated as a town.
  • 1837 The Rogers house is built facing the future entrance to the park.
  • 1881 The sisters Emily and Elizabeth Rogers offered their land opposite the house to the city for use as a public park.
  • 1883 A syndicate of businessmen – F.B. Shedd, E.W. Hoyt, E.A. Smith, and T.P. Garrity -- bought the land, put it in a trust and made $30,000 toward improvements on the property.
  • 1885 Ernest Bowditch of Boston [he got around, having done the landscaping in a historic park in my hometown of Cleveland - Rockerfeller Park], a “competent landscape gardener” began design of the park.  He removed boulders, laid out walks and carriage roads, and planted trees and shrubs.
  • 1886 The deed for Rogers Fort Hill Park was transferred to the City of Lowell.
  • 1894 The city purchased 4 acres of land between High Street and Hanks Street.  This “lower portion” was added to the park.
  • 1900-1904 Correspondence began between the Olmsted firm and the City Engineer.  The Lowell Parks Commission was established.
  • 1904-1908 Major work in the “lower park.”  A drinking fountain was put in the spring house, a fountain was placed in the lily pond, a maintenance building was built, trees and shrubs were planted, and walks were laid out according to the Olmsted plans.
  • 1910-1925 Work continued in the park; a nursery was added on the north side of Fort Hill, and a small zoo and deer paddock were added on its south west side.  Attendance was high.  First winter carnival was held in 1923.
  • 1925-1950 The city stopped publication of annual report books; little was heard or written about the park.
  • 1960-1980 City budgets were drastically cut.  Maintenance was all but eliminated.  Park slipped into a period of decline.
  • 1989-1990 Fort Hill Park Betterment Association organized to address crime and safety issues.  Police patrols were increased, security gates were installed and boulders were placed around the base of Fort Hill to deter vehicle access.
  • 1995-2000 The Belvidere Neighborhood Association’s Beautification Committee adopted the park as a project and made plans for the park’s management, restoration, and fundraising.  The Lowell Historic Board gained the park and surrounding neighborhood designation as the Rogers Fort Hill Park Historic District.
  • 2000-2005 With state matching landscape preservation grants, the City installed new trees, gardens, walkways, curbs, benches, and the fountain.  In 2001 the Friends of Rogers Fort Hill park formed to maintain these new features and to plan for future improvements at the park.
  • 2005-present The Friends of Rogers Fort Hill Park incorporated as an all-volunteer, tax-exempt, 501(c)(3) charitable organization.  Today their volunteers provide maintenance, educational programming, and advance improvements at the park.
Trees at Forth Hill Park by Meredith Fife Day
The park is now part of the Concord River Greenway Park, which is an area being built as a multi-use pedestrian/bike path designed to transform the Concord River into a shared natural resource that unites neighborhoods and connects them to regional resources. Check out this EPA document for how this plan has been developed. We don't often hear stories of our government doing useful things: it's nice to see examples like this where the government is investing in building better communities.

Click here to be taken to a Picassa gallery of some historic postcard images of Fort Hill Park that I collected from around the internet. Super curious and want to do some deep research? Check out page 27 of the June 30, 1936 edition of the Lowell Centennial for an article about the city parks. Check out page 7 of Anne Ohlsen's oral history to learn about the bears that were kept in cages on Forth Hill Park. Special thanks to University of Massachusetts Lowell for making their Center for Lowell History available online.

That's right. Bears. Who knew?

Fort Hill Park, Lowell Massachusetts