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Pay attention not only to the cultivation of knowledge but to the cultivation of qualities of the heart, so that at the end of education, not only will you be knowledgeable, but also you will be a warm-hearted and compassionate person.

~ HH the 14th Dalai Lama


Happy Easter!

Catholic, Orthodox (Coptic, Greek, and Russian), and Lutheran views (which I've included for regional reasons and because Lutherism is one of the earliest--perhaps the earliest--of the Protestant denominations). If I've left out a doctrinal view you prefer, feel free to post it in a reply--I'd love to see some other beliefs.


San Francisco and Pop Culture

As I did in New York, I decided to write blog entries about my conference in San Francisco, so my students can see what I'm up to at these conferences (this one over Spring Break no less!). But this time around, my conference hotel is not offering free wireless, so I'm having to write these offline and post them later. Still, I'm dating them retroactively, so they'll still reflect the intended date of the post.

Flying into San Francisco, I was more taken by the West Coast mountain-and-Bay scenery than I thought I would be, particularly with the sun high overhead but the Bay and low hills thick with gauzy fog. On the ground, I found the warm, breezy hills and meandering roads relaxing, the sight of all those thick evergreens and swaying palms oddly comforting, even as I realized that I was recognizing them only from film and television: I had been coddled and nursed by Hollywood, and now felt almost infantile in the presence of California. It was like the Chili Peppers song internalized, brought into an almost religious reality. Perhaps it was the BART subway train we rode from the airport to the hotel--it was hands-down the cleanest, most comfortable, most efficient rail system I’ve ridden so far; the seats are larger and softer than those on our plane from Madison!

Our hotel is downtown, in the center of a shopping and arts district that is home to what seem like hundreds of what my friend David Horsley calls “alleywalkers.” (I remain in the habit of calling them “homeless,” but in a personal essay titled “The Alleywalker,” Horsley argues that for many people who live on the street, a home is the least important of the things they are “less.” Therefore, he chooses to call them “alleywalkers,” a better descriptive of their lifestyles.) I’m used to encountering alleywalkers in my travels--I’ve become something of a magnet for them, often chatting with them for blocks as I walk to a restaurant or a reception or a bar and they follow, hoping without begging that I’ll hand them some change (which I often do, in exchange for the conversation). In Atlanta last spring, I actually followed a man more than a mile into the depths of back-alley Atlanta; he’d asked me to put him up for the night in a shelter, and rather than simply hand him the money, I chose to walk with him and see the shelter myself, in part out of curiosity, in part out of suspicion (I didn’t know what he’d really do with my money), and in part out of simple human companionship. He told me about his children in Florida, about his struggles to find work without a local permanent address, about his life on the street. When a gang of shadowy figures began crawling from beneath a distant overpass and making their way toward us, he stopped me and explained that we were entering a part of town dangerous for white people (he used the word “Caucasian”; he was African-American), and that on second thought, he’d feel better walking me back to my part of town. He didn’t ask for any money. I gave it to him anyway, along with my leftover Indian dinner, and he hugged me and offered again to walk me back, but I waved him off and wished him well.

Here in San Francisco, the alleywalkers are different, or at least, more open. I’ve seen more in just these several blocks than I have in all the other cities I’ve visited combined. Having so many in such close proximity, many camped out in front of the swanky downtown hotels and the pricey shopping centers hoping to catch wealthy tourists, I’ve had the opportunity to make some observations I had long assumed from pop-culture presentations of the homeless but had never fully encountered before. Here, many of the homeless have gathered into tight communities, small traveling congregations of friends and fellow beggars. Some of the lone wanderers carry signs and sit silent, as though in meditation or stoic repose; others try to sell trinkets made from found paper clips or woven bits of discarded thread, or hand out free community newspapers in hopes of a donation; others simply sleep, an empty Starbucks cup held loose in their hands. But the congregations conspire, they arrange themselves in lines to beg collectively or vote on representatives to follow shoppers and tourists, debate the amount to be begged and then allot the money they collect, like a church charity plate in reverse. As my wife and I walked down Market Street to the city’s public library--a regular pilgrimage in all new cities we visit--I overheard such a conversation, a stooped, bearded man in a dirty denim jacket explaining to his colleagues that he needed five dollars, the rest electing him to track down the money (and telling him he needed to get more than five dollars if he expected his share), at which point he tucked away the capless prescription bottle he’d been holding, stuck his long-reused plastic water bottle under one arm, and followed us across two streets and half a block, shuffling in a limp, rambling a barely coherent but clearly practiced narrative in hopes of getting our change.

I find such encounters difficult. The truth is, I often have some change to spare, and if I can do so safely, I’m always willing to offer a bit of help. But here, the alleywalker population is so dense that I can’t donate funds without revealing the money I have on hand, and--excuse though this may be--I worry about giving some money to some people while excluding the rest, and I certainly can’t afford to help out everyone. So I choose to help no one, often explaining--falsely--that I’d love to help out but I have no change. Everyone I’ve encountered seems to accept this, not as truth but as the code that it is: I have some change, but I don’t have enough, and I’m not going to give. No one has so far seemed offended. It’s just a part of the culture, a part of the dialogue of this place. It’s been an education for me.

The other thing I’ve encountered here, not for the first time but in the most open ways and in the greatest numbers, has been vocal activism of various sorts. On our way to the library, my wife and I watched the set-up for an anti-war protest we’d heard announced on the previous night’s news. On our way back, we strolled through an open market of vegetables, baked goods, and falafel vendors, and we wandered into the United Nations Plaza, where I met a young Tibetan woman handing out flyers about the Olympic torch and it sole stop in the US (in San Francisco), a Free Tibet tote slung over her shoulder and a quiet sadness on her lips, in her eyes. (I thanked her when I took the flyer then, once I saw what the flyer was, I turned and said, “Thank you very much!” but she’d already gone, gently pushing flyers at the crowd behind us.) When we got closer to our hotel, we got stopped by a small crowd of people, many with their cameras and cell phones raised to snap pictures. I cast about, unsure what was happening, but then I remembered--it was the protest, quieter than I’d expected because it was less angry march and more guerrilla theatre. On one side of the small square, a group of people in fake fatigues held cardboard machine guns aimed at hooded “prisoners” like the ones we held at Abu Ghraib or that we currently hold at Guantanamo or other “secret” prisons. In another corner, a man in a fishing vest displayed a Ken-doll Bush hung in effigy from a flower-wrapped fishing pole; behind him, signs were arranged like a bouquet in a large white bucket, with a note to “Return signs here.” Across the street, arrayed in front of Bloomingdale’s as though protecting the shoppers, a line of twenty police officers sat on blue-and-black dirt bikes like a street gang or a motocross team. Down an alley half a block away was a large police bus prepared to cart away arrested protesters.



I'm in Chicago, working on my novel and some short stories and preparing for my reading at PCA/ACA next week while my wife attends an important Intellectual Freedom committee meeting with ALA. I plan to post about my pop-culture conference in San Fransisco, so I had intended to spend this week posting a preview of sorts, writing about my revision process and what I am doing to prepare for my presentation.

Instead, I find myself in tears.

I don't like using this blog as a political platform, in part because I allow my students to read it and I don't like propagating my political beliefs via this blog any more than I would do in my classrooms; I believe both should be open and available to the free exchange of ideas, which requires if not my silence then at least some semblance of my neutrality.

But I can remain neither silent nor neutral on this issue, and I feel I must share my thoughts here as I did when writing about similar anti-protest crackdowns in Burma just a few months ago.

For those readers--especially my students--who are unfamiliar with this news I'm referring to, here are some links:
I was (slightly) relieved to read yesterday that Prince Charles is planning to boycott the Beijing Olympics in protest over China's Tibet policies--and that he'd announced that decision before the demonstrations. Talk of boycotting the Olympics is spreading, and I'd like more world leaders to step forward in this form of protest, because, as the Olympic Games are designed to represent the possibilities of human cooperation and friendly competition, it seems a travesty that this Olympiad's events are taking place in so disharmonious a nation as China. If ever we needed a better demonstration of that travesty, the tragedies unfolding during these brave Tibetan protests are it.

Yet I am dismayed that the situation in Tibet has reached this point. (Full disclosure: I am a practicing--if poor--Buddhist of the Tibetan Mahayana tradition, and, having attended teachings from His Holiness and intending to attend more this summer, I consider myself one of his millions of students.) His Holiness, the 14th Dalai Lama, who is the exiled but beloved leader of the Tibetan people, has long called for what he calls the "Middle-Way approach," resisting these sorts of violent protests and insisting on dialogue and compromise. While the Chinese government has for years claimed the Dalai Lama is a "separatist" causing unrest in the interest of Tibetan independence, His Holiness has remained steadfast in his insistence that he only wants autonomy within and with cooperation with the broader Chinese government system, in the interest not of preserving Tibetan nationalism or Independence but of preserving Tibetan religious beliefs and Tibetan culture (which the Chinese are systematically trying to stamp out). In his speeches on the situation in Tibet, His Holiness has consistently called for patience and compassion, which has frustrated a lot of young Tibetans who find patience difficult and resent the Dalai Lama's "passive" (he would say "pacifist") approach, and these riots, I fear, are the result of those young Tibetans' pent-up frustrations bursting loose. This is not what the Dalai Lama wants, and it is not in the best interest of the Tibetan people.

Nevertheless, now that the violence has erupted, I think we need to make what good of it we can by calling attention to the frustrations of Tibetans and to the brutality of Chinese policy regarding Tibet. Through that, I hope, we can most quickly restore peace and begin the more productive process of restoring Tibetan autonomy and Tibetan cooperation with China. But to do this, we cannot relax our attention. So please, anyone reading this, try to stay on top of this story, these events, this long-standing political situation, and speak out--call or write our own government, which only several months ago awarded the Dalai Lama a special medal of recognition, and demand that we increase our pressure on China to show restraint in their dealings with Tibet and, ultimately, to work with the Dalai Lama to find the most beneficial compromise for everyone.

In the meantime, here is the official statement from His Holiness the Dalai Lama: