Herbal Clinic, First Day Observations

1.) Chinese Medicine doctors in China see a volume of patients that is hard to fathom from our American point of view. Sometimes more than 5 patients an hour for around 40 patients in a work day. If I saw forty patients a week in the US, I would be ecstatic. 

2.) Healthcare in China is largely free to the population, including of course acupuncture and herbal medicine. In order to achieve this feat, hospitals are crowded, doctors and their students work incredibly hard, and no one in the system is compensated in the six-figure equivalent for Nanjing. Being a doctor is prestigious, difficult to attain, and duely compensated but is not the work of the socioeconomic upper crust.

3.) There is absolutely no expectation of privacy in a clinical setting. New patients and previous ones will open a treatment room door, ask a question, check back later. There was a doctor, three of his students, three of us foreign students and a translater in all our treatment rooms and not a single patient was bothered by our presence on any level. In fact, many of them seemed intrigued or even flattered to be observed by foreign doctors. 

4.) The hospital is simultaneously a triumph of providing care for as many people who need it as possible and an example of all the horror stories that American doctors and politicians opposed to universal healthcare coalesced into one place. That is, the place is packed, there is little privacy, doctors are not richly compensated, and your direct control over who you see and when you see them is limited. That said, it is amazingly equitable and reflects more of what is real about the use and distribution of limited resources.

5.) Everyone wants the nicest things but should we all really have them? Especially if it means that us having nice things literally prevents millions of other people from having those same nice things? 

6.) Children suffer disproportionately from respiratory diseases, especially cough

7.) Even the most hardass-seeming Chinese doctor might speak excellent English and be warm and receptive to this group of Americans studying Chinese Medicine

First Impressions of Nanjing, China

1.) I’m not really sure how I would order food in most restaurants without a Mandarin speaking anglophone around because without the pinyin letters, I’ve got no idea what anything is. Even with the pinyin, it would mostly just be guessing

2.) Like much of the world, the city is relatively gritty with unbelievable levels of construction happening everywhere

3.) I felt immediately comfortable and at home when we got into the city today. I have no explanation for why since I can’t speak the language or read the words of literally anything around me at all. But it feels strangely comfortable

4.) Soup wonton are delicious

5.) People only look at me for a second and then continue on their way. Some people at home suggested that people would be constantly staring, but that hasn’t yet been my experience.

 

 

A Value Statement

Genesis of an Idea

The results of the 2016 presidential election have brought a wave of emotions into the forefront of American political discourse. Many people who wanted to see the first female president take the oath of office on January 20th were shocked to learn that Donald Trump had won enough electoral votes to emerge victorious. Their shock quickly morphed into disbelief and then into denial and eventually into protest and in some cities even into riots.

During this last week there has been no shortage of cries of hypocrisy from the right, frustrated that their victory isn’t being accepted by the entire electorate. Equally abundant have been anguished retorts from the left, astonished that a man with such a well-documented propensity for being hateful, personally critical, mocking, and downright mean was able to cinch the presidency. I’ve been participating in debates on social media, sharing articles that try to shed light on how this unexpected event actually happened, and struggling to articulate my reasons for being part of the distraught progressive camp. Such a constant repartée has left me tired and deflated and feeling like I’ve been playing whack-a-mole with one red-herring issue, one ill-informed respondent or one reactionary post after another. So I thought I need to pull back, to find the macro viewpoint that is so essential in the Chinese Medicine that I study and practice.

When my institution of higher learning wanted to expand and grow into a truly professional entity, one of the first things it spent time doing was crafting a mission statement — a collection of values and goals for the institution. This sort of soul searching process, filled with vigorous debate and discussion, resulted in a powerfully insightful and succinct statement of what the institution wanted to spend its time and resources pursuing. The college uses this mission statement and other guiding documents to determine whether or not an initiative is fitting for our institution and whether or not they can support it. They rely on the statement of values to inform their decisions and if anyone wants to know what kind of place our college is, they can take a look at the guiding documents to get a perfect picture. This process got me thinking that I should have a value statement or at least a list of values that I can use to understand how I feel about an issue, especially ones that are nuanced and have no easy solutions. As it turns out, creating such a document is difficult and is hard to organize but below you will find my current set of value statements and some simple explanation for why they matter to me. My hope is to revisit this list regularly and determine whether these values continue to represent my thinking and my heart and hopefully to be able to chart some change over time. I can only imagine how remarkably different my value statements would have been from my teenage years to my thirties, and I hope to have a chronicle of my evolving consciousness  for the decades to come.

The Principles

1.) Inclusion shall be the guiding principle at the core of every other value.

For nearly the entire history of humanity we have self-divided into tribes. That division has taken on many forms and many sorts of labels from those with money and status to those of a particular faith, from those of a distinct skin color to those of a particular political party and from those within a set of geographical boundaries to those that spoke a particular language. We’ve always done it that way and it has caused strong bonds within the groups and endless conflict between the groups. In the US in the last century we look painful strides to begin blurring the lines between the different tribes. We haven’t succeed yet in making everything cohesive and functional and in fact we have unearthed new tribes that run the gamut from gluten-intolerant to open-carry gun owners. And yet our goal to find common ground is one of my essential tenets. Thus, language or actions that seek to divide without purpose and to deride without consideration cannot be considered in line with this value. Working to create more tribes only serves to redirect our energy away from collectivism and toward disdain.

2.) Courage, especially in the face of terror, shall provide the strength to remain inclusive.

Living in the modern world can be a scary experience. We have been directly at war for the last fifteen years and in some sort of lethal conflict nearly every decade of the last hundred years. The face of our enemy today is hard to know and is hidden among seemingly regular people. Terror attacks have wracked countries and people all over the world and there is no shortage of dictators or autocratic theocracies. When faced with such real danger we have many different angles to consider, including retaliation or domination, passivity or apathy, but the one that resonates with me most is courage. That is, the courage to take my commuter train today even though I know that terrorists just attacked the Madrid subway system yesterday; the courage to accept Syrian refugees into our country even though they seem foreign and unknown and that some of the people or ideas we are fighting in the Middle East might be among them; the courage to speak up and stop someone from harassing a young man on the street because he’s wearing a skirt and pair of pink pumps. Courage is the value that gives us strength to be inclusive when it would be so much easier to retreat to our tribes.

3.) Consideration for other people’s experiences shall justify being courageous in the world.

The classic adage about walking a mile in another person’s shoes couldn’t be more apt to shape this particular value. Imagining what other people have gone through and how those experiences have shaped them is an essential component to how I understand being human. It often requires a huge level of imagination and disconnect with my own reality in order to find myself in the place of an immigrant Latina or a middle-aged factory worker. This exercise means that I take people at their word as they describe their experiences and their emotions connected to those experiences. I don’t get to decide how a person feels about a given situation or action, even if my first instinct is that they are overreacting or that their emotions are misplaced. Those assessments are for those individuals to make on their own self-reflection or in their own therapy sessions,not for me to decide that their reaction makes sense from my world view. Considering as many different experiences as possible will inspire me to be courageous in my approach of including those different experiences into my sense of self and place.

4.) Compassion shall drive me to consider the world from so many different points-of-view.

Life is very difficult for a lot of people. Even people who wouldn’t describe their lives as difficult deal with setbacks, heartbreak, and situations that test their resolve to continue the struggle of living a modern life. Hundreds of cliches exist to remind us that “someone else is having a worse day than you” or “being kind is always best,” and yet we often gloss over those aphorisms as overly Pollyanna and saccharine.  Imagine if we instead spent effort trying to integrate those sentiments into our daily interactions. We could find restraint when cut off in traffic or find calm when talking to an irate customer on the phone. The expansion of our ability to empathize with humans not immediately in our tribes serves to expand our whole understanding of the human experience, it gives us the emotional strength to continually consider the world from varying perspectives.

5.) Love shall be the cornerstone to the practice of living with compassion.

So it seems like an overused word in our culture. We’ve heard the need to “love our neighbors as ourselves” for as long as most of us can remember, and yet we don’t ever seem to take that advice, to internalize the idea that if we approach each other and our environment(s) with love, we can’t go wrong. Even when situations seem insurmountable and that it would just be easier to blowup and lash out against those events and the people involved in them, the only thing that we can really control is our relationship to the events and people that happen in our lives. I can get attacked on the street, be beaten to within an inch of my life, and my initial reaction upon recovery will be to feel angry and scared. But that is not the only way that I can react to that event. I can change my relationship to those feelings, maybe not overnight, but with work and with time, I am in control of how I feel about anything that happens to me, for me, or around me. I can even control how I feel about things that happen to other people or to the natural landscape. I can’t control how other people react to something, but I can control how I feel about how they are reacting. Humans are often petty creatures astonishingly moving forward through time despite our tendency to act like monsters or to substitute reality with delusion. But that tendency toward being a less complex creature does not mean that we cannot work consistently toward overcoming our tendencies and to embrace a different version of ourselves. Practicing love is not always a success, but every time I go through the motions, the process becomes easier and the effects more lasting.

Synthesis

This list is not exhaustive. There are plenty of other value words that I think are important like dignity, compromise, passion, and diligence. Those words carry a lot of weight in how I assess the correctness of actions and policies but they are extensions of the Big 5 listed above. And here’s the rub: value statements aren’t always successful in shaping how I react to events or respond to stimulus. Life is a constant practice where I strive to be better than I was yesterday, as good as I can be today, and even better than that tomorrow. I must be kind to myself when I fail to embrace my values while also holding myself accountable to these values when I need to make decisions, especially big ones.

Where to Pee: An Ontological Assessment

In an increasingly large number of states, legislation is being considered, debated, or implemented around the question of who gets to use which bathroom. The core of the argument centers around the needs of transgender people who, the argument goes, should be able to use a restroom that corresponds to their gender. It is important to make a clear distinction here between the terms gender and sex both for their actual meanings and for how they will be used in this piece. Sex refers to the biological, genetic coding for each individual human, most simply established as male and female, based on the sex determining chromosomes: XX for females and XY for males. Gender refers to the socially and emotionally constructed norms that have been associated, perhaps erroneously, with particular sexes. For a simplified example that does very little to parse out the complexity of human sex and gender, a person with an XY chromosome pair who exhibits what our contemporary, western society would consider a male presentation (short hair, a lack of conspicuous make-up or colored adornment, minimal jewelry, wearing clothing such as jeans or shorts, potentially sporting facial hair and displaying more aggressive and assertive behaviour) is the classic male gender, or to use a simple term that sums up all the previous descriptors, a cis-man or cis-gendered person; that is, a person whose sense of gender and outward presentation thereof corresponds to their biological sex.

This question of gender identity is removed from the question of sexual orientation, which is an important distinction to establish. Sexual orientation refers to how a person satisfies their sexual needs and desires and how such a person finds intimate sexual satisfaction. So to add yet another wrinkle for readers less familiar with the terms of gender studies, it is possible for a trans-man (i.e. a biological female who identifies as male) to be either homosexual or heterosexual, meaning that he might desire to sleep with women (heterosexual) or with men (homosexual). And for the more seasoned readers let me of course point out that this treatment is a super simplified discussion of these issues. Of course any person, cis or trans, could also identify as asexual (no sexual attraction), bisexual (attracted to both genders), or any other combination imaginable. The purpose of the categories here is to help the uninitiated reader to find his or her feet in the discussion as opposed to creating hard and fast labels that can be applied to any and all people.

Now that our terms have been established, let’s return to the question of where to pee. In February 2016 Charlotte, North Carolina passed a city ordinance that would add gay, lesbian, and transgender people to a list of protected classes of people, preventing businesses or city government offices from discriminating against those groups. While these sorts of protections are not uncommon in larger municipal areas, the North Carolina state house convened a special session to create legislation to circumvent that local city government. One of the most contested issues in the Charlotte legislation, even among the lawmakers in that city, centered on specific language that would allow transgender people to use public restrooms that correspond to the gender with which they identify. As the state-level lawmakers gathered to address this ordinance, the question of which bathroom could be used by what sort of person was center in their response. The language of the state-level bill was more far-reaching that previously imagined and distinctly forbade people from using any bathroom or locker room facility that did not correspond with the gender listed on their birth certificates. The formal language creates a situation where any state law will henceforth supersede municipal laws, and unrelatedly forbids city governments from raising the minimum wage within their municipalities.

So that sets the stage. Now let’s look at the arguments. Since it is impossible to truly assess the motivations of any particular human being, this treatment will only look at the direct issues cited in legal debate and post-legislative media commentary and discussion. Issues of whether or not transgender people are morally reprehensible, deviant human beings, spiritually corrupted, or bound for hell is not relevant to this particular discussion.

The Reasons Against

The primary argument for excluding trans people from bathroom and locker room facilities revolves around the question of safety. The basic breakdown is as follows: Bathrooms and locker rooms are intimate spaces where people can be seen in varying degrees of undress and engaged in very private and personal activates like relieving themselves, showering, or changing. Since the potential for nudity, however brief in the modern setting, is ever present and the activities of such an intimate nature, males and females should be divided so as not to incite any unwanted attention, sexual arousal, or outright aggression. We can see from the position points that the structure of the argument presumes several important positions:

1.) Males would take advantage of the intimate nature of bathrooms and changing rooms to leer, self-gratify, grope, or sexually assault females if placed in close proximity

2.) Females are in need of protection from the above-mentioned savage males

3.) As long as the sexes are separated, then the risk of any of the above illicit behaviours is nullified or at least mitigated.

The presumptions of the position points are distinctly conservative and assuming certain fundamental qualities of both men and women that are certainly open to debate, but would be better addressed in a different essay. Also, it is certainly true that we could reconstruct the position points to talk about females leering at males, taking advantage of them sexually, or groping them unwantedly if females were allowed in close proximity, but the rhetorical appeal of that set-up falls nearly flat. That is not to say that there are not many notable instances of men being assaulted by women and of boys being abused by women and girls and that those instances of abuse are as damaging and impactful as the more common occurrence of sexual assault on women. However, I think it goes without saying that framing the argument around male assault is less impactful.

So if trans people are allowed into these intimate spaces, the argument continues, it will allow one or both of the following things to occur:

1.) Men who “feel” that they are women will be able to freely enter a space that is supposed to be safe and protected for biological women, thereby violating the protection of that space by introducing maleness in the guise of femaleness into the space.

2.) Any male who has ill-intent toward the women in these intimate spaces will be able to walk into the facility with whatever malign purpose, and once identified as a male who “does not belong,” he would be able to claim that he is actually a woman and has the right to remain. The examples for this situation that are often cited are a man in seattle who was in a women’s locker room changing while a group of young girls were changing for swim lessons, a whole host of men wearing wigs and dresses who were arrested for filming women using the restroom, or men who used the same physical disguises to gain entrance to restrooms for “illegal voyeuristic purposes.”

So How Do the Reasons Play Out?

Let’s unpack these concerns. The first concern is actually rooted in a more fundamental question about what it means to be a man or a women. This question is a complex one about which many great books have been written and many case studies compiled. The best assessment that this writer has heard boils down to a simple internal analysis. I identify as a cis-man. How do I know that I am a man (with all the social and emotional material that comes with that label)? I just do. Despite that knowledge, I do not care for sports. I do not like working on cars. I am not particularly aggressive. I am very large and very strong. I have a beard and a penis. I very much like musicals and flowers. I enjoy working with my hands and getting dirty, but after I clean up, I like my hair to be just right. I like dancing and being sassy but I also enjoy the rigor of intellectual conversation and most people I know would describe me as a serious person. I find myself teary-eyed in most emotional films that I watch. I have an X and Y chromosome. If I could figure out how to wear a skirt that is not a kilt or a sarong and combine it with a nice button-up shirt, I would do it in a heartbeat. I love perfectly tailored suits. I like to have painted toenails. So which of these characteristics make me a man? Which make me a woman? I’m not blind to the world that we live in and neither are you, so I can imagine which ones you would put in which category. And yet as you place each fact in a certain column, it immediately begs the question: why? Why is liking sports male or flowers female?

Again, much writing has been done on this question, but I address it here because it is essential to understanding the first consequence mentioned above. That outcome presumes that trans people cannot be anything other than their chromosomes, that their gender is bound to the most arbitrary of factors, the invisible chemical sequence that drives some cells to develop in different ways from others. All of our human developments, our critical minds, our music and art and poetry, our language itself invites us to understand that we are more than the sum of our parts, however fundamental modern science may suggest those parts are. For the entirety of our time on this earth we have been working to reach beyond our biology, so why would a trans-person’s trajectory toward self-determination be any different from a cis-person’s?

The first consequence we have been discussing is for me an overly simplistic and self-limiting perspective on human potential and people who hold fast to that position are, in this writer’s opinion, clutching tightly to increasingly antiquated views of human sexuality and are confounded that a man would want to be a woman. The idea is repulsive and unconscionable and this revulsion drives the need to maintain the status quo.

Despite the vitriolic appeal of such a posture, most arguments being levied by people who are actually less discriminatory or at least less comfortable admitting it, center on the second consequence: that deviant cis-men will use the trans argument to gain access to intimate spaces to assault and abuse women and children. This argument seems initially to be very compelling. How would women and children cry foul if a man with ill-intent does enter their private spaces if he can just say that he “feels” like a woman and so he belongs? To answer the question we need to first point out that voyeurism, groping, picture taking, assault or any other activity that is illegal outside of a bathroom is still illegal inside of a bathroom, regardless of who is committing the crime. So in many of the bathroom “peeper” or exposure cases that are cited as ways these trans-inclusive laws will allow cis deviants to attack women and children, the men were found out when a woman saw a red recording light under the stall or when a bag was pushed under the wall of an adjacent stall and a woman realized it contained a camera. A third man was dressed in women’s clothing but was exposing himself to other women and girls in the bathroom. In all of these situations, the activity is what alerted the women to the transgression not the presence of a man in the bathroom, wig and dress or not. In fact, some women even reported that they didn’t know a man was in the bathroom at all. We should remember that women use stalls for relieving themselves and so cannot see the other people in the stalls beside them regardless of gender. So if a woman were doing the illicit recording, the glowing red light would still have been the indicator of wrong behaviour, not the person’s apparent gender. Perhaps more importantly, both of the cases cited above occurred in bathrooms with the current, biologically aligned access requirements not the new trans-inclusive ones.

Perhaps the most compelling example cited in some media outlets concerns the Seattle man mentioned several paragraphs above who was using a women’s locker room while a group of girls were changing for swim practice. When he was approached, he said that Seattle’s new trans-inclusive laws allowed him to be there and so no further action was taken. Firstly, the only source for this story is a conservative media outlet that provides no real details or context. Was the man actually a voyeur? Was he doing something lewd? Was he a man or was he a trans-woman who didn’t conform to expected physical expectations? It’s difficult to say without more information but it’s easy to see how such a story could raise the hackles of average folk: why would a man want to be in a girls locker room but for deviant reasons? If he looks like a man, he must be a man? Again, it’s difficult to say. Maybe he is a criminal; maybe he likes the shampoo in the ladies room more; maybe he is really a she who is beginning the process of transitioning presentation. Even presuming the worst-case scenario, we have only one viable example of exploitation of the new rules and many more examples of deviant behaviour happening with the current rules.

Despite all of the suggestion to the contrary and protestation against changing the system, there is little to no evidence that bathrooms or locker rooms are completely safe under the current rules, as the above examples illustrate. This statement is not intended to cause paranoia but merely to point out that safety is an elusive target. All of our lives are in constant jeopardy every day, and we must of course make personal choices and encourage legislation publicly that furthers our need to protect ourselves from very real dangers. It is not at all clear however that by excluding trans people from restrooms that we would be any safer than we are currently. Will we demand there be bathroom monitors in every public facility? Will we take it upon ourselves to interrogate every person in the bathroom who looks a little too delicate to be a “real man” or a little too leathery and gruff to be a “real woman?” How would we propose to maintain the safety of our bathrooms that are already not any more safe than any other public place?

What About the Trans People Themselves?

If we are actually concerned about safety, then we should certainly be considering what happens when a trans-woman has to use a men’s facility, say at a gas-station truck stop in rural Mississippi. Perhaps the trans-woman is lucky enough for the facility to be empty so she can use the toilet in peace or maybe it has some cis men using the bathroom who find it ridiculous that there is a man wearing a dress in their bathroom. Maybe those men verbally assault the trans-woman, maybe they attack her, maybe they decide they want to see if she has lady parts to go along with her lady dress, or maybe they only give her a disgusted look – the same look she gets everywhere she goes because she is trying to be herself in a world that all too often decides that she isn’t worthy of that opportunity.

The question of safety extends to trans-men as well. Imagine if this guy is required to use women’s facilities because of the gender listed on his birth certificate. Imagine the number of times he will be accosted by women thinking that he doesn’t belong in the restroom (ummm, because he doesn’t), or the potential problems, even life threatening ones, with security guards or police officers who might respond to a cis woman’s complaint of a man in the restroom.

The crux here is that transgender people are not an easy group to unravel. For many of us cis people, feeling transgender is something we can’t understand and because of that ignorance, we are quick to dismiss and discard the experiences of these people. And when we disregard people, we are able to use emotional and inflammatory arguments about safety to keep us from feeling our bigotry and/or our lack of empathy and compassion. The arguments for safety are flawed and only belie a deeper discomfort with who and what trans-people are as well as promoting a self-aggrandizing sense of our individual power to avoid danger. Actively denying trans-people the right to use bathrooms and locker rooms that correspond to their gender identities serves only to put those people in harms way, both physically and emotionally, while building a false sense of security around the protections afforded people in those intimate spaces.

So I went to a 12 step meeting, and I’m not an addict….

People can use acupuncture for a variety of illnesses and conditions. The most commonly known use of acupuncture is to treat a variety of pain problems in either the acute or chronic stages. A lesser known, though not any less effective, use of acupuncture is for the treatment of addiction and behavioural health illnesses. In order to better understand the use of acupuncture in this way, my school includes a course as part of the core curriculum that addresses the mental, emotional, and physical components that create addictions and chemical dependencies. And it was for an assignment in that class that I walked into the basement of a local church to sit and learn with a group of people who’s introductions all began with “Hi I’m (insert name here), and I’m an alcoholic.”

aa_homepageI can’t say that there has been anything in my life thus far to prepare me for what I could expect at an AA meeting. Well I suppose that there has been plenty of media representation of the iconic group meeting structure, but that sort of exposure just told me what to expect about the layout of the meeting, not the content. AA is a massive and complex organization predicated solely on the premise that people need help and support from other people to get and stay sober. And I use the word sober here to refer to the state of not being intoxicated — one’s “natural” state of mind. But the intoxicant around which an addiction spins is not limited to just alcohol or drugs. The list of twelve-step meetings in the Portland Area is enormous and ranges from Narcotics Anonymous to Emotions Anonymous to Eaters Anonymous. It’s pretty easy to find oneself in a destructive and addictive pattern even if the behaviour causing your problem isn’t always something that our greater society considers a default problem. I’m sure that many of you out there have flirted with the edge of a behaviour that could have easily spiraled out of control, where any number of factors being ever so slightly different would have negated our ability to self correct and landed us in a situation where we would need help to recover. There but for the Grace of God go I.

The thing that struck me the most about the people gathered at the AA meeting that I attended was the level of self analysis and self-inventory displayed by many of them. We had a wide variety of people at this meeting with vastly different numbers of years of sobriety — some as many as fifty years and some as few as three weeks. Within that range of years in the program, constantly struggling to stay on the path of sobriety was a representative variance in the level of self awareness. That is, at least in the group I observed, the ability of an addict to understand his or her addiction and how it impacted his or her life and the lives of the people he or she knows and loves was directly correlated to the number of years sober. The fellow with fifty years sober struck me with all the poise and candid wisdom of a crass yogi master and the person with only three weeks sober was scattered, self-interested and almost certain that his issues with alcohol were temporary and would be solved with just a little more self control and little less credit card therapy.

Despite that differences among the addicts gathered, they listened attentively to each other. They consistently affirmed parts of each other’s stories with head nods and muffled articulations and they managed (for the most part) to limit their sharing and insights to respect the one hour allotted for the meeting. The coffee was terrible but I think that was the only thing I really expected from the meeting. I had heard it mentioned on countless episodes of Law and Order or the Killing. But what I witnessed at this meeting was anything but a trite representation of what happens nearly every hour of every day across the world. I saw people talking frankly about the darkest times in their live; recalling the fall from normal life into a life focussed wholly on the pursuit of their next drink. Most impressively, this self assessment and recognition of the past history and their past transgressions is a daily process. Daily. As in every day they are spending time to understand where they have been, how they achieved where they are now, and how they are going to maintain their lives. Certainly the rest of us, out here in the non-addict world, could stand to apply that same sort of inward-looking analysis more frequently. If nothing else, I found myself heartened and encouraged by what I saw at this AA meeting. I saw people, regular people, helping other people. Helping them because they could and they felt like they should. Not because they were getting paid or because to help made them powerful or better. It was just help.

A core component of the AA system is the idea of surrendering yourself to your higher power. For some members that means God and for other people the idea is more deistic or esoteric. For some of them the higher power is just something unnamed that exists outside of themselves. This surrender is what struck me the most. To constantly admit that you are powerless on your own to solve this problem and only through the release of one’s tight hold on doing everything yourself can you channel the higher power to achieve your sobriety. It’s an unnerving idea: you are not enough. And trying to be everything, all of the time, will only lead to ruin.

Nobody wants to be told that they are not enough. To be the master of one’s destiny is a core Western value and an even more entrenched American value. We can be whatever we want to be as long as we work hard and constantly exercise our will power over ourselves and our surroundings. Sounds like the recipe for a nation of workaholics who spend hours a week at the gym and the rest of their time counting calories consumed and dollars in the bank. Oh right, we’re already there…

So is the answer that everyone should start attending twelve step meetings? I’m sure that has been suggested more times than once. But maybe we can just start with a little more moral inventory. What do we value? How do we show people and ourselves what we value? Why does it matter anyway? And can I loosen my grip on myself and my world in the interest of getting more actual control? It’s counterintuitive, but great thinkers and spiritual leaders have been saying it for years: Wu Wei — stop forcing the will and it will come.

Ok Pumpkin Spice Latte with actual pumpkin, really?

So there is a lot of discussion in the blogsphere and in the podcast media world and I guess maybe in the world at large about pumpkin spice lattes and other food products paying homage to this iconic autumnal combination. Specifically today I was listening to one of my backlogged episodes of Slate’s Culture Gabfest as they analyzed the intricacies of what the pumpkin spice latte tastes like and its place in the American consumer zeitgeist. If you don’t already listen to the Culture Gabfest, you should. It’s light but still articulate and compelling (you’re welcome Slate). You can listen to the whole show here but what I want to pull out from their discussion was the mention that Starbucks has added actual pumpkin to the Pumpkin Spice Latte this year in response to large levels of consumer criticism that they didn’t have any actual squash in the beverage.

So here’s the rub: why did the public feel like they were getting screwed with regard to their sugary, intensely orange beverage? Let’s break down the problems with being indignant about a lack of pumpkin.

1.) The thing you identify about pumpkin confectionary is the composition of the spices used not the squash. Cardamom, clove, ginger, nutmeg, cinnamon, allspice, maybe even curry or bay are the spices that make up the essence of pumpkin pie, in fact they are the pumpkin spice in the Pumpkin Spice latte. That is, they are the spices, often associated with pumpkin pie and pumpkin bread and ginger bread and spice cake and mince meat and a whole host of other holiday foods. One might even expect to see a pre-made blend of such spices sold by McCormick at your local grocery store under the name “pumpkin spice.” Thus, to think that a “pumpkin spice latte” is a latte that has pumpkin and spices in it is to miss true meaning of the label. It is a latte that is spiced with the same sorts of spices one uses in pumpkin goods most often seen in Autumn and the subsequent holiday season. “Pumpkin” is an adjective for “spice,” not one of the two ingredients added to the coffee.

2.) Pumpkins don’t taste of much to start with. Seriously, they don’t. Even when your mom or grandma makes pumpkin pie, she likely opens a can of mashed canned pumpkin and promptly adds mounds of sugar, bright and distinct spices like clove, cinnamon, and nutmeg, and some fattening agent like cream or sweetened condensed milk (because you could probably use some more sugar in your pie). If you tried to make a pie that really highlighted the flavor of pumpkin, you’d end up with a very mild, some might say bland, tart what wouldn’t get anyone particularly excited and certainly wouldn’t become its own fall season meme.

3.) Adding some sad bits of pumpkin flesh to your coffee didn’t make it any less of a flagrant exploitation of your seasonal nostalgia.  Holidays are great times of year, at least that’s how must of us want to think about them — time with family and friends, maybe groups of people you haven’t seen in a while with whom you are looking to reconnect and enjoy. And for a lot of people that is what the run up to christmas and its sister holidays from other faiths really is. But Starbucks is playing into your sense of season, into your sense that this time of year is different than other parts of the calendar. And again, I’m not saying that it isn’t distinct or that it can’t be wonderful and magical and exciting. I’m just saying that drinking a sugar laden coffee beverage filled with colorings and a smattering of old school spice blends isn’t really a representation of anything at all. It doesn’t signal the beginning of the best time of the year and it certainly isn’t made any more metaphorical by adding a “authentic” dose of real pumpkin. It’s just a spendy beverage that trends during the last quarter of every year.

I realize that there are a lot of people who just like to drink pumpkin spice lattes and I think that is great. Like what you like and enjoy it. But just don’t look to a massive company like Starbucks or other equivalent peddler of harvest time food and drink to bring you an earnest reminiscence. They’re just trying to diversify the way they get into your pockets.

Instead let the signal of what is certainly, for many people, the best few months of the year be something external and natural, like the leaves changing color or the crisp cut of the outside air. Make your own spiced treats and start new traditions with your loved ones that will draw help to build memories and create anticipation for this time a year to come around again. Make it wholesome, make it real.

so we moved…

 In February of this year, I flew to Portland, Oregon for an interview at Oregon College of Oriental Medicine. I had applied for their masters in acupuncture program several months earlier and I had reached the final stage. Turns out that my interview was interrupted by a blizzard that blew into town, but no amount of Mother Nature could stop the wheels that had started to turn. If accepted, I was moving to Portland. A few months later I asked my lady friend if she would come with me on our cross country journey and she said yes.

So at the end of June, we took off on our 2600 mile journey from New Orleans to Portland. It was a touch four days of driving, with a lot of this:

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And then there was a lot of this:

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And of course Neville Chauncy was not at all amused for most of the ride:

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And then finally after we had passed even more of this

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We finally arrived into a new land of new vistas:

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Of course we had to stop along the way to eat and not just a few times we found ourselves in places with delightful wall decor. My Lady Friend was always amused

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And then we finally arrived in our new little house in the NE of Portland.

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Hooray Us!

Driving across the country I suppose could be some sort of romantic adventure, something alluding to a kind of transcendental exploration of the great unknown or maybe a funky reference to the beatniks hitching across the country or cruising in an old school bus drinking LSD lemonade and watching the sunset in remote parts of the dusty western landscape. The truth of the modern journey I think is that it is oppressively hot in the desert, poor New Mexico is one derelict town after another, and that driving through terra cotta mountains and across empty expanses of sand and scrub brush is not particularly heartwarming. I will concede though that there were moments where I wondered if my Lady Friend and I weren’t the only people in the whole of that place, when we were the only cars for miles and the horizon seemed an eternity away.

But I didn’t find those metaphysical moments to be the inspiring elements of Thoreau or Emerson; instead I found myself to be like Wordsworth’s canoeman, knowing that the sublime waited just around the next bend in the river, but at the moment where he would encounter it, he turned his craft around and headed back downstream. Maybe I was afraid of it because I had a place I wanted us to be. Maybe it’s because I didn’t feel like I was positioned to give over to the landscape. Maybe it’s because I hate sand and generally the orange color of the southwest. I’m not sure what it was, but I think I will have to go back to that wasted part of the world again and see what it was that might have been waiting for me there.