Monday, October 22, 2012

The Game and The Art

Last July 60 at-risk High School youth from East Stroudsburg University's (ESU) UPWARD BOUND program played the Samurai Game® accompanied by The Art of Practice & Organizational Dojo.

Since its creation the Game has existed to address core issues related to conflict, specifically in its ultimate form - war.  The Game's author, George Leonard, used it to beg this question: "We know that throughout history war has done nothing but destroy. So why do we, the most intelligent species on the planet keep practicing it?"
In an effort to provide youth with alternatives to conflict ESU's Upward Bound Director Uriel Trujillo requested the July program.  As a result he and those young people inspired this writing.  

Upward Bound   
(continuing from the August and September 2012 issues of The Ronin Post)

Today, in 2012, our national conflicts are front and center. We are engaged in a great debate. It's good that we debate; free speech is important. We are gearing up to an election. Also good - we can still freely elect. But is our debate being conducted or held as dialogue, a dignified communication of differing perspectives for the sake of learning and acting anew? Hardly. Rather, it offers little more than sound bite positioning. Little room exists for alternative perspectives regardless of what side the debater takes or to what political party he or she subscribes. How rigid we've become! This kind of rigidity, this unwillingness to look at a situation from alternative viewpoints, is symptomatic of war.

The kind of struggle we are engaged in as we run up to our election is not new. In Chapter I (The Coming Crisis) of his Civil War Memoirs, Ulysses S. Grant wrote: "The [Constitutional] framers were wise in their generation and wanted to do the very best possible to secure their own liberty and independence, and that also of their descendants to the latest days." And he continued: "It is preposterous to suppose that the people of one generation can lay down the best and only rules of government for all who are to come after them, and under unforeseen contingencies."

Grant was 62 when he wrote his memoirs. He was reflecting on the kind of rigidity that drove his country to war against itself. To this day that war remains our bloodiest. A year after completing his writing Grant died. Grant, the self-deprecating and reluctant West Point man who returned to soldiering only after the needs of his nation demanded that he do so. Grant, who felt himself ill equipped to command, yet he rose to lead armies and their generals into battle. Grant, who accepted Robert E. Lee with dignity and afforded him respect (not humiliation) at the Appomattox Court House. Grant, the former 18th President of the United States who lived his last years in severe ill health, on borrowed money, and bankrupt by reason of "the rascality of a business partner" - his financial standing having been ruined due to "universal depression of all securities" (his own words). Grant, a man of the nineteenth century could well be described as a man living through own last decade.

Who said, "Those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it", was it Burke? Perhaps Santayana? Maybe Churchill? Does who said it really matter? Probably not. But the WHY it was said it certainly does. And what truly matters is that these words remain relevant today.

What about learning, what does this word mean these days? Is learning simply a becoming aware of data, fact and information? OR, is learning an actualization accompanied by a transformation of practice? In other words, something NEW or DIFFERENT becomes so rooted and acted upon that past practices and realities (while never forgotten) dissolve to be replaced by new more effective actions and practices.

Of what value is it that we should continue to put forth the need to create peaceful practices rather than practices dedicated to increased conflict and war? Is it important that one be able to recognize what drives his or her personal desire or need to attack and/or fight (even against one's self) - when attacking and fighting have become unnecessary or counter productive, or both?

Five years ago I walked through Auschwitz. Its ground and barbed wire fences, barracks and ovens were silent reminders that surrendering to bigotry cannot work. But they also informed me that if mouths had spoken up (rather than remaining silent) and bodies had taken action (rather than remaining still) things in Europe and for the rest of the world would have been different from 1933 through today.

Where do our personal wars exist and what perpetuates them?   In 1957 a WWII veteran watching the film The Bridge Over the River Kwai had to step outside of the small theater. Why? Because the images on-screen returned him to a reality of vivid sights, feelings and odors twelve years past, memories so alive that his body shook uncontrollably. Only a silent lamppost on the street could console him. That man was my father. What were his wars about? Why did they start and why did they continue? How did they affect his family, his neighbors and his community?

In 2012, a young woman in Sonoma County, California, stands on a sidewalk outside her home and rages. Screaming insults and obscenities at her aunt, father and grandmother she's trying to get her way. She's my neighbor. What are her internal wars about? Why did they start? How long will they continue? Will she pass them along to a someday-to-be-fathered child? And if so, will she be aware enough to get it - that what goes around, comes around?

Reading Grant's memoirs I recall Dee Brown's Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, the story of America's post-Civil War westward expansion, and how it silenced the voice of our continent's indigenous people. Ever read it? As a study in the aftermaths and effects of war it should perhaps be required reading in high school history classes and college psychology courses.

The June 23, 2012 issue of TIME magazine (p 22-23) carries a sullen image of a young widow. Beside her are these words: "More U.S. soldiers have killed themselves than have died in the Afghan War. WHY can't the Army win the war on suicide?" As a former Army officer myself, my immediate response is that this war on suicide is not just the Army's problem. It's a problem that belongs to us all.

I step onto US soil, inbound from Hong Kong or Poland or Mexico or Australia or China, and am greeted by bodies vastly larger than what we all know to be healthy. We are at war with our own bodies?   Why? Don't we know we're killing ourselves? Obesity in America is rampant. In 1960 our nation's obesity level stood at 9.7%. By 1994 it had reached 24%. Today we sit at 36% and by 2030 we are expected to hit 42%. If we were to view what we doing to ourselves in the context of a national security issue our national debate over health care might get more traction than seen only within the context of it being a health issue. National security? Sure, why not? Historically, what has always happened to nations whose citizens became collectively ill prepared and unfit to care themselves, nations who relied on the technologies of their day and sought to hire in professional militaries in order to maintain the appearance of power and strength rather than finding strength (physical, mental and emotional) from the vast pool of the average people who lived within their boundaries?

Back to July and East Stroudsburg University and Uriel Trujillo's UPWARD BOUND PROGRAM. His students are walking into a world we have created with the help of our ancestors. Perhaps Uriel is onto something by inviting me to join him in small step, to assist his at-risk youth; helping them to seek alternative ways to deal with the stresses and conflicts of life, to consider principles of dignified and peaceful living, to think about what they might be able to then carry forward into the world they will inherit from us.

Interesting what thoughts a Game - in this case The Samurai Game® - can inspire.

© Lance Giroux, 2012

Wednesday, October 03, 2012

Things I’ve Noticed Along The Way

Obesity in the America: what if we reframed it as an issue of national security?

The past months have taken me abroad a lot.  Whenever I travel, especially outside the US, my sensitivities for observation are heightened.  Entering China a few years ago for the first time introduced me to a reality of smog far worse than warnings had prepared. Shanghai was particularly jaw dropping as my first experience of noon-time black sky on a clear weather day.  That experience caused a shift in the way I think of Los Angeles – even on a bad California air day.

Travel also affords encountering people, in my case hundreds of thousands in just the past twelve months … on sidewalks, hotels, restaurants, streets, in trains and airplanes, and at airports.  The noticing??  Not really new news - people living outside the US are definitely thinner than we Americans, and in surprisingly large numbers.  In fact, the difference was so stark that I had a hard time believing my eyes when I first noticed it.

Passing back across US borders can be jolting.  The past year has included numerous walks through those final steel doors after the questioning eyes of Immigration and Customs officials have turned to gaze elsewhere.  And when I do pass into the airport lobbies the body sizes of We The People is often alarming. 

I’m not hitting a new drum.  The news abounds with the fact that obesity in the US is a problem.  But the reality of actually experiencing it gives pause. When you leave the US long enough you can get used to seeing so much thinness (by trainload, busload, sidewalk load, bicycle load, truck load) that you can forget what it’s like back home. You can also forget just how large our food is portioned out with such regularity.

I decided to do a bit of research.  Here’s the skinny on what I’ve found so far.  Thirty six percent of adult population of the US is obese, so say numerous valid reports.  A few months ago on a trip to Petaluma’s Bounty Farm (in the small town where I live) I found myself listening to a concerned nurse addressing the amount of sugar actually contained in one soft drink.  I had heard about the data, but until I actually saw her produce a pile of sugar stacked aside a twelve-ounce can of soda the numbers didn’t really mean anything to me.  Now those numbers do.

From 1950 to 1960 our national statistic was 9.7% adult obesity.  By 1970 the percentage had grown to 11.3%.  1994 placed it at 23%.  Today we’re at 36%, and the forecast is that by 2030 we will hit a staggering 42% adult obesity level. 

Another interesting statistic has to do with the amount of food we waste.  Reports of mid-2011 placed our national waste – food thrown away unconsumed – at 25%, and calculated at approximately 200 lbs of food per person wasted per year. Last week an NPR program reported data showing we’ve now hit 40% waste.  Interesting: we’re discarding a higher percentage of food, and simultaneously growing larger plumper bodies.  Hmmmm?

Back to the original question:  Should obesity in the USA be reframed as a national security issue rather than a health issue?

I’m of the mind that we may want to consider thinking of it from this perspective.  Why?  At least three immediate reasons come to mind:
#1 – A casual observation of the political dancing we do here in the US, especially the past few years, indicates that hot topic health related issues wind up producing gridlock.

#2 – Most of the US – certainly our politicians, regardless of party affiliation – would shake in our boots if we were thought to be embracing weak national security, especially since September 11, 2001. We believe and promote the notion that it’s better to be strong than weak.  Actually, being strong is a pretty good idea in a world wrestling with its predatory tendencies.  America measures her strength using yardsticks of national defense and national security.  And - according to our Constitution - we the people have a right, ACTUALLY A RESPONSIBILITY, to protect ourselves, fellow citizens and our liberties.  Most of the world agrees with that notion, by the way.

#3 – Individuals unable to muster the physical stamina to care for themselves in the most basic ways are forced expend increasing amounts of time, energy and money in order to find and secure others who will do that for them.  The statistical tendencies show us that our pool of weaker bodies is growing, while our pool of strong bodies is diminishing. 

Powerful technologies, some say, provide security, hence the need for physical stamina isn’t all that important.   Really?  History speaks otherwise.

Look again.  From 1950 to 1960 with 9.7% adult obesity, about 90% of us could be counted upon to answer some kind of minimal call to action – but it’s even less that that when considering other “health related reasons”.  But let’s forget that for a moment and continue the count down. By 1970 with obesity at 11.3%, that call could be answered by 88%.  By 1994 those able to answer the call had dropped to 77%.  And if the predictions are accurate, then by 2030 our collective capacity will shrink to 58% able to take some kind of effective action.

What do you think?  If the issue of Obesity in America were reframed to include seeing it through the lens of national security might we be able to understand it in a way to reverse a trend and solve a problem?  Leading, by the way, to a physically healthier nation.