Monday, August 14, 2017

In Thoreau Country: A Perspective on Today's America

“I had three chairs in my house; one for solitude, two for friendship, three for society.”
Ever since I read Walden over two decades ago, I sometimes dreamed that I was transported back in time by a century and a half to sit on that second chair one evening and have some heart-to-heart with Henry David Thoreau.
“Do you think I am leading a life of quiet desperation?” I might begin. Or perhaps something lighter: “How are those beans coming along?” Or maybe inquire after the health of his friend and mentor Ralph Waldo Emerson. How about the fate of farmers mortgaging their souls to the devil, that is, to bankers, for the false privilege of “owning” their homes?
There would be much to talk about as the moon rose over the pines and its reflection gave the Walden Pond an ethereal glow.
I found the possibility of dialogue across time elusive, so this summer – August 2017 - I decided to do the next best thing. I flew from San Jose to Boston with only one goal in mind, to see Walden Pond and feel Thoreau’s presence.

I boarded a Commuter Rail from Porter Square in the city of Monmouth in Massachusetts for Concord, the fabled town where Thoreau was born and in which he spent a significant part of his life reflecting on the human inclination for both savagery and nobility.
The train journey took me through the lush summer vegetation typical of summer in the Eastern United States. The green, a shade fresher than the green in Western U.S., reminded me of the green in Bangladesh where I was born.
After about an hour, I found myself in Concord. I looked out from the station and tried to imagine what Thoreau might have seen and felt. Oh, well, there was Starbucks as well as several auto workshops, a general store, an optometry shop, a bank.


I began the walk from Concord to Walden Pond, a distance of about a mile and a half. Thoreau would walk this path to and from his cabin for an evening meal at the home of his mother and brother and keep up with current events. He lived in the cabin for 2 years, 2 months 2 days, from July 4, 1845 to September 6, 1847. How many miles did he walk in all? Thousands. No wonder he looks so fit in the only two photographs we have of him.



The walk took me by immaculate lawns and quaint homes with ancient trees spreading their ample shadows across grass and streets. It made the hot trek tolerable. Reminders of Thoreau were everywhere, from the Thoreau streets and lanes to markers pointing out where slaves hid a few years before the Civil War began, and some of whom Thoreau helped escape to Canada through the Underground Railroad.

The neighborhood was lily-white, so I was heartened to see a sign on a lawn that said “Black Lives Matter.” Thoreau, among the original abolitionists, would have smiled.
And then suddenly I was on hallowed ground. I was at the bank of the Walden Pond. Through the trees I could see the whole pond and its graceful finite shoreline enclosing infinite stories and memories.  

Walden Pond was not so much a pond as it was a poem, a magical, mathematical pi rather than a mere positive integer. People of all ages were sunbathing and swimming, about two hundred of them, with lifeguards sounding out solemn instructions from their high perch from time to time.



I swam in the waters of the Walden Pond. Opened my eyes underwater after a few laps and found the water as green as the vegetation around. A snapping turtle came by to check out the humans and unimpressed, turned back and disappeared in the dark deep waters. The water seemed cold at places and warm at others. Two enterprising tourists were rowing on a canoe, going further than any swimmer dared to venture.

In the winter of 1846, after the pond froze solid so that he could walk on it, Thoreau began to survey the pond. The instruments were unwieldy and heavy but Thoreau was undeterred. The "angle intersection survey" included the pond's perimeter, almost 2,900 feet. As described in the brilliant biography of "Henry David Thoreau, a Life" by Laura Dassow Walls, "with ax and ice chisel, he cut well over a hundred individual holes through the ice to lower the plumb line into the water ... Thoreau used the tools of science and engineering to create a remarkable work of art, a working survey that accurately mapped Walden Pond to the inch: length, breadth and depth ... it was 102 feet at the deepest point ..." This is how Thoreau summarized his work: "The line of greatest breadth intersects the line of greatest length at the point of greatest depth." The line is remarkable for the symbolism it contains for truth and purpose and life. In the incomparable prose of Thoreau: "It is the heart in man - It is the sun in the system ... Draw lines through the length & breadth of the aggregate of a man's particular daily experiences and volumes of life into his coves and inlets - and where they intersect will be the height or depth of his character."

After swimming to my heart’s content, went to check out the Thoreau Center, selling all things Thoreau: books, pictures, mugs, candies, maple syrup, posters. Next to the souvenir shop was the replica of Thoreau’s cabin – a 10’ x 15’ house with a single bed and a large window that looked out on the Walden Woods - and a statue. 

An array of solar panels brought dignity to the parking lot. Sight of the sun’s energy being harnessed would undoubtedly have pleased the Bard of Walden. Thoreau wanted to live deliberately, that is, to live honestly with the full awareness of the consequences of his actions. For this original, singular act of courage, defiance and integrity, we remember him to this day with gratitude and humility. He pointed us all toward a better way, that a person is indeed “rich in proportion the number of things he can afford to let alone.”


On the walk back from Walden to the town, that is, Concord, I thought of the events roiling America these days. Donald Trump has emboldened racists and hate-spinners, turning America the Beautiful into America the Ugly. Thoreau would have walked the 550 miles from Concord, Massachusetts to Charlottesville, Virginia, to oppose the neo-Nazis, the Supremacists and the KKKs defiling the American ideal. On July 23, 1846, He spent a night in jail in Concord for refusing to pay a poll tax, fearing that the money could be used to pay for the Mexican-American War he opposed. How gladly he would have spent nights, if not years, in a jail if that’s what it took to free American from the shackles of the hate-mongers and the internal terrorists on the rise in Trump’s America!
“What is the use of a house if you haven’t got a tolerable planet to put it on?” asked a prescient Thoreau. Global warming is the undeniable reliability of our times but Thoreau saw it coming way before anyone else. He saw it but we don’t for one simple fact: We choose not to live deliberately. That includes both the affirmers and the deniers of global warming.

Raise your hand if you think of yourself as a modern-day Thoreau, if you can live deliberately as Thoreau did, even if only for a year in the wilderness by summoning the willpower to resist the digital seduction, if you can fight for justice and equality even while raising beans and being nourished by solitude.
What, no hands? None at all?

Monday, July 24, 2017

Out with Selfies, In with Wonder

You can also read it in the Mercury News 


At the Montgomery Hill Observatory of Evergreen Valley College in San Jose, there is a public stargazing night on the first Friday of every month. It is here that a decade ago I first saw Saturn through the observatory’s 7” refractor telescope. I will never forget that magical moment. The “Lord of the Rings” planet 750 million miles or so away from the earth seemed so inviting that I wanted to reach out and touch it.
With Jupiter and Saturn gracing the night sky now, I decided to visit the observatory after a hiatus to renew my acquaintance with the two planets.

About fifty of us gathered at the observatory recently to take in the beauty of the starry sky. The line was long for the domed building that housed the telescope focused on Saturn.
What I witnessed, however, was unexpected and, frankly, shocking.
Most of the “stargazers” spent more time taking selfies than looking at the planet. Parents held their babies close to the telescope and snapped photos as the unnatural light of their smartphones lit up the dark interior of the building. They photographed the telescope’s view of Saturn, experimenting until the image was to their satisfaction.
What I found incongruous was that everyone acted as if this was normal, that unless Saturn was captured in the circuitry of their hi-tech gadgets, the physical experience of observing the ringed planet through a telescope wasn’t worth much.
It was the same with Jupiter in the adjacent roll-off roof building. Jove and his moons took a backseat to the selfies, to the document-by-camera excitement that gripped so many of the visitors. A remark I overheard put the selfies in perspective. A man turned to his spouse and said, “It’s already on Facebook and Instagram.”
The standalone selfie was apparently not worth much by itself, unless authenticated by social media and “liked.”
I managed to see Saturn, its ring tilted at a steeper angle than when I saw it last, magical and awe-inspiring as always. But the flash and whirr of the cameras seemed so pervasive that afterwards, when I looked up with unaided eyes outside, I half-expected to see the image of a partially-eaten translucent silver apple dominating the night sky.
The selfie syndrome is everywhere, not just at public events and tourist spots but in parks, woods, shores, malls, stadiums, restaurants, museums, even at graveyards and funerals!
How is it that we have so casually surrendered substance to shadow, real to virtual? Why are we so in thrall to our devices 24×7?
One reason is that smart gadgets and social media allow us to unleash our very human instinct for self-expression to a degree unprecedented in history.
But pushed to extreme, self-expression can devolve into narcissism. In particular, in the presence of the sublime and the transcendent, self-expression through selfies, rather than engaging through the senses, can be foolish and short-sighted. It is like ignoring the eternal for the ephemeral.
How to subdue this abnormal selfie craving? One way would be to renew our acquaintance with nature.
“The world is too much with us,” lamented Wordsworth at the dawn of the 19th century when the poet felt that people had lost their connection to nature because of their growing attachment to materialism. “Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers:/Little we see in nature that is ours/…/For this, for everything, we are out of tune.”
Next time we go to the woods, the shore or the observatory, let’s leave behind the devices with the flickering screens so we can experience with our five senses the music of songbirds, the lullaby of surf, and the pageantry of stars and planets.

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Two Centuries Later, We Need Thoreau More Than Ever

You can also read the article here.


Henry David Thoreau was born in Concord, Massachusetts, two hundred years ago today. Why is remembering and honoring Thoreau important? Because America needs him now more than ever. With president Trump waging a relentless war against the environment, Thoreau’s essays, books and the way he lived offer a focus to the resistance movement rippling across America.

“Civil Disobedience,” his 1849 essay and blueprint for radical reform that inspired the likes of Mohandas Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr. and Nelson Mandela, should be required reading in these difficult times, if only for a new generation of Americans to become acquainted with Thoreau’s ability to speak truth to power for achievable results.


When we read in “Civil Disobedience” that, “There will never be a really free and enlightened state until the state comes to recognize the individual as a higher and independent power, from which all its own power and authority are derived,” we in the resistance movement against our current U.S. president are inspired to continue. 

What calamity has Trump wrought so far regarding the environment?

Here’s a partial list:
·        Appointed Scott Pruitt, a bona fide climate change denier, the head of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
·        Proposed a budget that will cut EPA funding by nearly a third, with climate and clean energy programs taking the biggest hits.
·        Opened up federal lands and water for drilling.
·        Instructed the interior department to review dozens of national monuments to see if they can be scrapped to allow access for oil and gas drilling.
·        Lifted a moratorium on coal mining on federal land and is reviewing a ban on offshore drilling off the Atlantic coast.
·        Has also called for drilling in the Arctic national refuge in Alaska.
·        Demanded rapid approval of the Keystone and Dakota Access oil-carrying pipelines that will violate the rights of Native Americans and expose the environment to potential oil-leaks.


But these pale before the most serious damage Trump has set in motion on the environment and on America’s standing in the world: His declaration on June 1 that the U.S. will withdraw from the Paris climate agreement.

The agreement was reached in 2015 between 195 countries and took effect in November 2016. The goal was to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, the main reason for global warming, that raises sea levels and unleashes major droughts. Trump, clueless or indifferent to the unimaginable security threat of climate change, has called man-made global warming a hoax. At the recently-concluded G-20 summit in Germany, leaders of 19 of the 20 nations reaffirmed their commitment to the Paris accord. Trump was alone in abandoning it.

Thoreau is relevant today because we continue to confirm and learn from his observations. He taught us that treating the environment with respect not only made economic sense, it made even more sense as a moral imperative. “We need to witness our own limits transgressed, and some life pasturing freely where we never wander,” he wrote. “In Wildness is the preservation of the World.”

He was prescient about the concentration of power and America’s shrinking role in the world that could result from misguided policies or policies driven by considerations of commerce alone: “If we were left solely to the wordy wit of legislators in Congress for our guidance, uncorrected by the seasonal experience and the effectual complaints of the people, America would not long retain her rank among the nations.”

Thoreau’s work is also helping scientists monitor global warming, more than 160 years after the publication of his timeless Walden. In that, he was the first climatologist. Thoreau began keeping meticulous notes in 1851 about when and where plants flowered in Concord. By comparing these historical data with the data of the flowering species now, scientists were able to conclude that spring was arriving earlier now than in Thoreau’s time, a direct consequence of global warming.


There are, fortunately, many Thoreauvians among our leaders who have rejected Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris accord and are determined to forge ahead with sustainable and innovative environmental policies.

California governor Jerry Brown, who will be hosting a global summit on climate change in San Francisco in September, released a video message to tens of thousands attending the Global Citizen Festival in Hamburg, site of the G-20 summit. In it he told listeners, “President Trump doesn’t speak for the rest of America. We in California and in states all across America believe it’s time to act. It’s time to join together.”

In explaining his motivation to move into the cabin he built by his own labor on Walden Pond on July 4, 1845, and where he would spend the next two years, Thoreau wrote: “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.”

Whether or not it is clear to us, future generations of Americans will judge us by what we did to overturn Trump’s policies and the steps we took to address the threat of climate change. Will they indict us for having made a Faustian bargain, as many republicans have, passing our days like the living dead, or will they be grateful for having used our constitutional rights to front the fundamental challenge of our time, the physical well-being of the one and only planet we call home?


The Bard of Walden is waiting, watching, listening.

Tuesday, July 04, 2017

Americans Confront a Dangerous Crossroads on Independence Day

On the 241st anniversary of America's independence, we find ourselves at a crossroads unlike any other in our history.

Two words sum up the danger that confront us at this crossroads: Donald Trump.


Since he became the president a mere six months ago, a dark curtain has descended on America. We regress with every policy and tweet he hatches in the darkness of his heart and unleashes on the world. The bar for decency, civility and respect for the rule of law sinks lower and lower with every passing day.

Everyone on the planet, including (I am sure) the few dozen or so inhabitants of Internet-enabled Pitcairn Islands, Britain’s smallest colony in the South Pacific populated by the descendants of the mutineers of HMS Bounty in 1789, have read president Trump’s vicious and misogynistic tweets directed against Mika Brezinski and Joe Scarborough, co-hosts of MSNBC’s ‘Morning Joe’ TV program.

What has stretched the patience of even some of our fellow-Americans willing to give Trump a chance was the bald-faced lie and below-the-belt hit in the president’s tweet: “… how come low I.Q. Crazy Mika, along with psycho Joe, came … to Mar-a-Lago 3 nights in a row around New year’s Eve, and insisted on joining me. She was bleeding badly from a face-lift.”

It turns out that Mika and Joe did no such thing, as clarified in an article they co-wrote for the Washington Post. Their conclusion: “Donald Trump is not well.”

It also emerged that the president is a blackmailer as well. White House officials have been calling the two hosts for weeks, apparently to kill an unfavorable story the National Enquirer - a tabloid dedicated to sensationalism - was about to run on them. “They said if you call the president up and apologize for your coverage, then he will to pick up the phone and basically spike the story.” (Enquirer owner David Pecker is a dedicated Trump chum.)

The two hosts refused to fold. The Enquirer ran the story as “Morning Joe Sleazy Cheating Scandal,” which turned out to be another damn lie as well.


Trump’s obsession with women, his boast of grabbing women’s private parts, his
past-ownership of the country’s first in-casino strip club called ‘Scores’ when he built the Trump Taj Mahal in 1990, suggest that misogyny runs deep in this man’s vein. Women matter to him only to the extent that they can be quantified as sex objects. If they turn out to be smart, independent and strong-willed, on the other hand, this unprincipled man feels threatened and is compelled to expose his virulent misogyny.


If this were only a character flaw of the rogue president, the damage could perhaps be contained, but it is not. It is the same flaw that is at the root of some of his policies: expansion of the Global Gag Rule that restricts women’s access to comprehensive health care, his elimination of federal funding for Planned Parenthood, his sabotaging of law against gender discrimination in education.


It is the same mindset that is at work in his crude attempt to replace Obamacare with the cruel Senate Health care plan (dubbed “Relief for the Rich Act” by Warren Buffet) that, if it becomes law, will throw 15 million Americans off Medicaid that covers 40 percent of America’s children and essentially leave 22 million Americans without health care over the next decade. It will take about $700 billion from the poor and the middle class and transfer it to the wealthy in the form of tax cuts.





It’s the same mindset that made Trump withdraw for the Paris Climate accord. This will significantly weaken global warming that threatens our very survival. Trump, of course, regards global warming a hoax. It is the same mindset that propels this president to wage a relentless war against the media, as his latest crude video tweet against CNN demonstrates.

We now have a president who revels in his misogyny, who sends current of excitement through his support base because many of these men also look at women as sex objects too, who feel threatened by professional, smart, high-achieving women who will kowtow to no one. Trump speaks to their insecurity, which is why it is so difficult to reason with them.


There was always a toxic subculture of misogyny in America. President Trump has brought this to the surface. He coarsens our culture on a daily basis by attacking our values with his vile instinct and boorish behavior.

With his dangerous policies and roguish rants, Trump tarnishes the image of the United States every day and in every possible way. That is why it is important that on this 4th of July in the year 2017, all of us, irrespective of party, faith and color, resolve to legally, intelligently and vigorously continue our resistance until this scourge is forced from office.


Monday, June 12, 2017

America's Muslim Supporters Outnumber Muslim Haters at Rally in San Jose

You can also read the article here.







On a bright and windy morning last Saturday, Esther and Neal, a middle-aged couple, drove 60 miles from Richmond to San Jose to express their solidarity with Muslim Americans. They were motivated to come after hearing about the rally a group called ACT for America (AforA) were organizing against Sharia Law in the U.S.

“This was really important for us,” said Esther, “to say ‘No’ to the hate mongers. As Jews, we can never forget the holocaust legacy. We have to reach out to our fellow Muslims to make America safer and stronger.”

But the couple, holding up signs that read “Another Jew for Love,’ was also curious to know from me – a Muslim - what percent of Muslim Americans (about 3.3 million, or 1% of the population) wanted Sharia Law (traditional Islamic law) in the U.S.

“I know of no Muslim who wants Sharia Law,” I said. “We love the U.S. Constitution.”

“That’s what we thought,” said Neal.

Bay Area Muslims have been bracing for the anti-Sharia Law protest for weeks. It was the quintessential straw man, a conduit for anti-Muslim hysteria by Islamophobes and White Supremacists emboldened by President Trump’s anti-Muslim policies.


We were tense and stressed as dawn broke but when we showed up at the intersection of Santa Clara and San Jose on Steven’s Creek Boulevard on Saturday, June 10, our fear dissolved and hope filled our hearts. Supporters, brought together by over 130 diverse organizations from all faiths and of all ages, easily outnumbered the AforA protesters - I counted about 40 of them - by at least 20 to 1.

“I am a writer,” said Esther, as we reflected on the sad state of America today riven by divisions, inequality and hatred. I made a mental note of the book she had written.

The sidewalks along Santa Row resounded with chanting. 








“Trump Says: Get Back. We Say: Fight Back!”

“When Muslims are Under Attack, Stand Up and Fight Back!”

“Say It Loud, Say It Clear, Muslims Are Welcome Here!”



Victoria, in her ‘60s and affiliated with the Trinity Episcopal Church in Menlo Park, showed me how she had used the malleability of the English language to turn a negative slogan into a positive message. “I saw this poster at an anti-Muslim rally that showed a brick wall on which was written ‘No More Muslims.’ I simply changed it to ‘Know More Muslims!” she said, beaming. 



Abigail, seven, and her two year old brother Theo, conveyed to the rest of America and to the world this message: “Stop the Hatred. Muslims Welcome Here.”


Maureen and Barbara, retired teachers from San Jose, held aloft posters that read “Christians stand up for Muslim Americans,” and “Resist the Right. Stop Racist Attacks.”

For Martin of San Jose, it was a moral imperative to attend the rally in support of Muslims. “We cannot wait for Internment camps. I heard some politicians talk openly for Muslim Internment camps after the Manchester attack.”



A large number of Japanese-Americans, descendants of Internment Camp survivors during WWII, held up signs that stated in bold red letters, “We Stand for Inclusion.” The statements were imprinted on images of the “Instructions to All Persons of Japanese Ancestry” manual that was handed out to their parents and grandparents during their Internment.

Across the street, among the anti-Sharia Law protesters, there was a man with a poster that read “Sharia Law: No. US Constitution: Yes.” I wanted to ask him if he knew of a single Muslim American who wanted to impose Sharia Law on America. But when I checked with a policeman, he wisely advised me not to.

What I noticed was that in this month of Ramadan, fasting Muslim volunteers were distributing water bottles to thirsty people, and that included those rallying against us. Nothing captured for me the spirit of Ramadan more than this simple and poignant gesture.

The posters were pithy and precise. Tara of San Jose: “Honk if you love you Muslim Neighbor.” Honking along Stevens Creek was indeed deafening Saturday morning.


Chris of Palo Alto told me her daughter Michelle, 10, insisted on accompanying her after she heard about the event and wished upon all of us: “Shabbat Shalom. Ramadan Mubarak.” We are also in the midst of the Jewish observance of Sabbath. 


Charles and Tori, members of Showing Up For Racial Justice
 (SURJ), declared, “I Love My Muslim Neighbor.” Jay, of Muslim-Jewish Solidarity Alliance, advised, “Resist Hate.” A San Jose family declared: “We stand with Our Muslim Neighbors,” and implored “Unity.” Tim, of Congress of Resistanceadvised: “Unite to Fight Against Racism and Bigotry.” 

For Steven, what was at stake was nothing less the future of democracy in America. “We cannot accept What Trump is trying to do to America,” he said. “We have to stand up for what we believe in and fight for our values for as long as it takes.”



For Sister Elizabeth, it was to stop the encroachment of what she saw was the unmistakable sign of fascism in America. Her poster said: “In the Name of Humanity, He Refused to Accept a Fascist America.” It showed the image of Taliesin Myrddin Namkai Meche, who lost his life at the hand of a White Supremacist in Portland when he came to the defense of two girls, one a Muslim wearing hijab..

After a while I simply began reading the signs for my own edification and inspiration: 






















“Muslims for love, peace, diversity, feminism, science and humanity.”

“Jews Stand with Muslims”

“End Terrorism by Not Participating In it”

“Dear Mrs. President: Trust Muslim Women”

“First They Came for the Muslims and I said, Stop Right There!”


Particularly moving for me was the message conveyed by the word “MUSLIM” on the T-shirt of a woman holding a banner with 2 other Americans of “Indivisible San Jose.” She had highlighted “US” in “MUSLIM.” It could stand for “US” as in, we are all in this together, and it could also stand for the United States. I never thought of my faith label that way, and I would have never discovered it if I hadn’t come to the rally. With awe and wonder, I realized that in the most unexpected way, I had redeemed my fasting!

When I returned home that night after performing the special nightly Ramadan prayers called ‘Taraweeh’ at the Evergreen Islamic Center, the images of diversity and inclusion and love and courage still fresh in my mind. It was past midnight. But I had one more thing to do before turning it in. I turned on my laptop, went to Amazon’s website and ordered a book called “Nest,” a book about the power of healing and friendship, by an author named Esther Ehrlich.