Checkpoint: Turning Discourse into Dialogue

S.J. Kent, R. Sibii and A.R. Napoleone. “Checkpoint: Turning Discourse into Dialogue”, in Examining Education, Media, and Dialogue under Occupation: The Case of Palestine and Israel. Critical Language and Literacy Studies

This book is an in-depth examination of education and media under occupation. The contributors to this volume engage dialogue to explore these domains and their roles and functioning under occupation while keeping an eye toward resolution, using the on-going conflict between Palestine and Israel as the focus. The uniqueness of this collection is not limited to the willingness of its authors to investigate topics that have often been left out of the mainstream, but that they actually enter into dialogue with one another. Education and media are exemplified as domains that can either maintain the status quo of oppression when used by policymakers and governments to do so or can be utilized as mechanisms for change and peacemaking. These contradictory roles are highlighted throughout this book by multiple voices.

“radical tolerance of contingency”: a counter to rupture fail?

Passions: Promises and Perils
Communication Department Conference
UMass Amherst

The phrase was posed by Dr Lisa Henderson (Chair of the Communication Department) in the Q-and-A following Dr Rey Chow’s keynote address. Lisa was musing out loud about (what I am describing as) a mapping of cinematic representations designed to invoke fear/horror and the possible range of affective responses called into subjective possibility by a film’s staging. I thought Lisa’s formulation suggested a label for a puzzle emergent in the cumulative discourse of the first day’s worth of conference workshops.

My ‘map’ of the flow of the “Passions” conference discourse traces only my own path through the set of concurrent workshops, so it can hardly be considered complete. However, I wager that it has potential to serve as an adequate preliminary structuring for other conference participants to amend. [The conference forum remains available for de-briefing, networking, further development, etc.] Dr Chow traced a complicated path from a theory of “rupture” by Bertolt Brecht and Walter Benjamin to contemporary pornographic and obscene exposures that no longer generate the ruptures that Brecht (and many others) argue spark heightened consciousness.

The problem of rupture failure is acute when theory is challenged to demonstrate its relevance in the face of practice, such as when analysis of film’s effect as a media is confronted with real life effects. This occurred in two instances during the post-keynote Q & A, when cinematic depictions of violence are cast against documentaries of actual violence, and when extradiagetic factors are included as relevant to the understanding of a story.

It is given in many fields that growth often comes from contact with something new, unfamiliar, even strange. Brecht used art to try and inspire people’s conscious perception and applied intelligence. Chow’s idea that “reflexivity becomes increasingly inseparable from a self-conscious type of performativity” obviously brought my own blog to mind, but her analysis is to the ways in which extreme applications (especially in film) tend “more and more…toward violence.” Part of the performativity that I cultivate with my self-conscious ‘thinking out loud’ is the challenge of finding moves through everyday interactions and conversations that veer away from violence without flinching from confronting the violent – even (or perhaps especially?) at the level of the mundane. For instance, the ways in which we academics do our work that results in collusion with the larger infrastructures that we explicitly aim to change.

Later that evening, I relaxed by reading a bit of science fiction.

“No alarming art here, thank you. Nothing ‘disturbing’ was even allowed in public places … the Imperium achieved its final state, the terminally bland.

Yet to Hari, the reaction against blandness was worse…a style based solely on rejection. Particularly among those Hari termed ‘chaos worlds,’ a smug avant-garde fumbled for the sublime by substituting for beauty a love of terror, shock, and the sickeningly grotesque. They used enormous scale, or acute disproportion, or scatology, or discord and irrational disjunction.

Both approaches were boring. Neither had any airy joy.”

Gregory Benford, Foundation’s Fear
p. 17-18, 1997

The beauty and the bane of science fiction is that it generally presupposes no evolution for homo sapiens. In order to remain sensible to readers in the present, people in the imagined future act out trends of behavior palpable in the present and the past. The downside of ensuring recognition (at the level of familiarity, if none other) is that it can feed a kind of fatalistic predetermination about the human condition: always and forever (it seems) we are destined (however one locates the source) to play out the same dynamics, even to be channeled into a limited number of roles, as if identities are possible only in finite quantity.

I anticipated the second day of the “Passions” conference, wondering what the discourse would bring. Everyone acknowledged that the conference was smaller than desired, yet many expressed satisfaction at what the size enabled. Being steeped (this semester) in a course on media historiography, I was attuned to the valorization of experience that permeated many of the presentations (ref Joan Scott, “The Evidence of Experience”). Experience seemed to justify a need and drive to create safety, as many (but not all) panelists focused on the “promises” of passion instead of on its “perils.”

Maybe (I muse), the graduate students in the Communication Department dealt with peril in the 2006 CommGrad Conference, “Communication in Crisis“? To imagine such a thing, however, means conceiving of some kind of group cohesion over time – a mode of thinking not much in style. Even if at some levels most of us know there is something credible about group dynamics and the enactment of identities and roles…i.e., of the socially-constructed basis of individual experience, it is really, really hard to step back and try to perceive how anything that feels so intimately like my own experience is a reflection of what society allows/determines that experience to be. Just because we get reflexive doesn’t mean we move beyond category! (Dammit.)

So I was absolutely fascinated in the closing de-briefing session at the response from conference planners when a UMass CommGrad requested that the “race” and “objective” panels (her terms) should have been mixed up more, because then she could have gotten some of both. The conference planners had not realized the thematic separation. Several people (planners and participants) had been questioning the presence of dichotomies in the conference throughout, but this one seemed to have slipped past everyone’s radar until the very end. The conversation at this point was intriguing, including logistical reasoning (e.g., ‘we can only group by what seems similar in the abstracts’) and matter-of-fact avowals from some who chose to follow the “race” track: ‘this is me, I didn’t even think about the other choice’ (both are rough paraphrases, just to show the sense).

What does this have to do with rupture?
Maybe nothing. 🙂
Or – perhaps – everything, or at least a lot!
A critique could be leveled that the conference was “too” this, or “too” that, but it is probably more constructive to imagine that the conference was just what it was – an interactive, group-level gathering of academics with common (or at least overlapping) interests, which happened to enact an unplanned division between matters primarily concerning race, and other, shall I say, non-race-based issues. In other words (one could imagine), a mirror representation of a society that wants to treat race as a separate concern for those who are interested in it by dint of personal experience.
During one of the panels during the second day, I suggested that – in light of contemporarily inured subjectivities – maybe we need to develop our communicative skills for generating ruptures in and among, with and for each other. This is not necessarily safe! Yet doing so, I suspect, might enable us to expand tolerances for handling radical contingency – the ever-present chance that, at any moment, things might go or be understood differently than we expect.

The Wrong Side of The Law

Federal Investigation (ongoing)

Before I get all dreamy-eyed about the potential for the Deaf community and sign language interpreters to make a significant contribution to global linguistic equality and transnational social justice (see yesterday’s entry), we have some business to clean up.

FCC announcement1.jpg
Nothing written here should be taken as legal advice. I am not a lawyer – not even a legal interpreter. What I write is only my attempt to make sense of this messy situation for myself.
Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Officer Jay Keithley told a room crammed full of interpreters, “you don’t want to be on the wrong side of the issue.” It was the second information meeting he held during the conference of the Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf. The room was inadequate for the 100 or so interested interpreters. Squeezing the chairs together, lining the walls, and sitting on all available floor space still left people overflowing into the hallway. Some were repeats, they had attended the first session (two days previous) and returned again, hoping for more clarity concerning liability and the definition of fraudulent behavior.

“This is huge,” one interpreter explained,
“We want this cleaned up way more than you do.”

FCC announcement2.jpgMy motivation to attend was academic curiosity about criminal behavior in telecommunications (I am earning a phd in Communication); I was not prepared for the size of the crowd nor its unmasked anxiety. The sense I received from the palpable concern of interpreters who do work for a VRS company is that there seems to be a significant grey area of calls being made with questionable communicative content.

The Charges: Public Corruption & Fraud (someone got greedy)
The apparently violated law is a general conspiracy law, Conspiracy to Defraud the United States (Title 18, United States Code, Section 371), in which the accused “…unlawfully, knowingly, and intentionally combined and conspired with others to defraud the Federal Communications Commission and its agent, the National Exchange Carrier Association” (p. 2, Affidavit and Arrest Warrant). The National Exchange Carrier Association (NECA) receives regulatory fees from telecommunications companies’ entire customer base, and pays back (technically, “reimburses”) the VRS sub-division or subcontractor or independent provider based on minutes-per-month of (what they call, sic) “online video translation.”
The Office of Inspector General (OIG) of the Federal Communications Commission (together, the FCC-OIG) noticed “a dramatic increase in the reimbursements” over the past four years. The increase in minutes used in January 2005 (1.4 million) to January 2009 (8.1 million) is 578%. (Check my math; this is an incredible percentage.) The difference in dollars is staggering: from $10.8 million (January 2005) to $51.2 million (January 2009) – $40.4 million dollars. Yep, if I had been anywhere near anything this big and illegal I would be quaking in my shoes too. What isn’t known (or at least, what is not shared in the legal documents), is how much of the increase is legitimate due to the Deaf community’s learning curve with the technology:

  1. becoming comfortable with using it,
  2. expanding the circle of family, friends, and work-related calls, and
  3. realizing its capabilities in making general content from the internet accessible.

Personally, I would not be inclined to underestimate how eager the Deaf community is to access the wide world of information available so suddenly and – finally! – easily.

The Crime: generating minutes without providing interpretation – from China!?!
Nested down through two layers of companies and three contracts, a particular VRS provider in Texas, Mascom, “processed a large number of VRS calls from callers who specifically requested that no translation [sic] be done, or to numbers that required no translation [sic]” (p. 6, Affidavit and Arrest Warrant). The internal jargon used by VRS interpreters, as reported in the Affidavit and Arrest Warrant to describe “calls with no apparent legitimate purpose” is ‘run calls’ or callers’ ‘running calls'” (p. 6). Examples given include

  • calls to lengthy podcasts that are not interpreted,
  • calls to numbers where the caller is “put…on interminable hold,”
  • calls when both the caller and the interpreter use what is called a “privacy screen” to block the incoming view (so neither can see the other and interpretation is impossible), and
  • VRS interpreters calling themselves.

Interesting, the American Deaf community does not seem to be the main culprit (at least, not in this first big case). Records show that “there are hundreds of hours of billed calls that originate with Chinese IP addresses” (p. 6). (An IP address identifies the specific computer used by the caller making the call.) This particular Affidavit and Arrest Warrant approximates that 75% of the total 605,000 minutes billed by (and apparently paid to) the owner of the Texas company (Mascom), Kim E. Hawkins, were run calls. That’s 453,750 minutes of the 6.7 million minute increase from 2005-2009: a mere drop in the bucket.
The information quoted in this blogpost is specific to the Texas case; a similar case has been discovered in Florida. Are there other run call scams going on out there? That is the reason why (in my opinion) the FCC made a showing at the RID convention: to rattle the cage and shake them loose. Officer Keithley explained how unusual it is for such an informational meeting to occur during an ongoing investigation; most questions of substance he had to duck or avoid because they related too closely to the details of the existing and ongoing investigation.

Coming Clean versus Hoping to Not Be Noticed?
To date, I have not worked for a Video Relay Service provider of interpretation services between spoken and signed languages. To a certain extent, my ignorance of the conditions of work and types of calls puts me in a similar ‘outsider’ position as the investigating officers from the FBI and FCC. I can understand their reluctance to specify which types of calls are fraudulent and which are legitimate – because who knows how creative people can be when they are deeply familiar with a system and want to take advantage of it. Still, there seems to me to be a very basic boundary: either your hands are up (interpreting), or your hands are idle. If you’ve been in situations that seem like running calls, then part of what needs to occur is a serious study and definition of what is a reasonable wait time (god only knows how long it can take to navigate automated menus) and what are expected/common conditions in which waiting makes sense (blowing one’s nose, for instance, or going to refill a cup of tea, or taking another call). Some parity needs to be established between the freedoms non-deaf speaking people have for putting each other on hold (in monolingual situations) and the freedom of Deaf signing people to adhere to common norms (in multilingual situations).
The ethics of confidentiality, specifically when/where & with whom the lines are drawn, is another arena opened up for clarification by such overt criminal behavior. The immediate suggestion from Officer Keithley is

“if you see this kind of conduct, report it to your managers, and report to the FCC’s Office of Inspector General at” or to himself.

They will protect your anonymity to the extent possible within “law enforcement purposes.” This guarantee is a bit plastic (for instance, you may be identified as a potential witness) but the interpreters who cooperated in the Texas investigation into Mascom are not named in the Affidavit or Arrest Warrant. Their anonymity appears to be protected to the extent that they serve “as a source of information for law enforcement officials” and (presumedly, although this was not stated) are innocent of “knowingly and intentionally” breaking the law. If you were stupid and got caught up in this before you realized how wrong it is, well, its time for another roll of the dice.

FCC’s Informational Meeting, Memo posted to Ed’s Telecom Alert (with comments)
Federal Communications Commission, Wikipedia
TRS (Telecommunications Relay Service, including VRS), Disability Rights, Consumer & Governmental Affairs Bureau, FCC
Conspiracy to Defraud the United States, Title 18, United States Code, Section 371. Criminal Resource Manual
Westerhaus, Patrick A. June 24, 2009. Case 1:09-mj-00404-AWA, Affidavit in Support of a Criminal Complaint and Arrest Warrant Against Kim E. Hawkins, text available at Ed’s Telecom Alerts, FBI Warrants and Warning
Reply Comments to Affidavit vs Kim E Hawkins, D’Aurio and Kiser, STI Prepaid LLC
TRS Fund, National Exchange Carrier Association (NECA)
Office of Inspector General (OIG) of the Federal Communications Commission (together, the FCC-OIG)
RID’s Statement regarding VRS industry investigation (RIDStatement(1).pdfdownloadable from RID’s website)
Take it easy, folks, Ed’s Telecom Alerts

making amends


There is only one scene that is too tidy in Gran Torino. It seems unlikely to me that after committing murder, gang members would hang around waiting for arrest by the police. But this is part of what gives the film its essential Americanness: in the midst of tragedy, the glimmer of a happy ending.
Gran Torino is a study in control, depicting the redemption of an old man who – as a young man – lost self-possession at a crucial moment and did a terrible thing. All the characters cope with the consequences of history in contemporary U.S. society, from the mass displacement of the Hmong because of allying militarily with America against communism in the 1960s to the showmanship of angry young disenfranchised men playing it cool and dangerous on the street. The verbal aggression is shocking, especially the “man talk” of white men that is typically protected from such blatant public display. Parallels with ways of talking that are stereotypically associated with racial minority groups are not difficult to draw. Racial and ethnic labels can – and are – used to express affection just as readily as disdain.
Using anti-politically correct language is not an automatic barrier to developing relationships of trust and respect across cultural difference. Not surprisingly, young people are most adept at recognizing and codeswitching among distinct forms of address. For immigrants, this is well-documented: bilingual children interpret for their parents and grandparents, bridging differences of language while undergoing irrevocable transformations in identity. The little girl who interprets her grandfather’s request to remove a wasp’s nest is no different from the hearing children of deaf parents, except that her family has no recourse to professional interpretation services. The home maintenance scene is innocent enough, unless one knows the range of situations children can be forced to handle.
Adults cope as best they can, relying on traditional rituals of communication that may or may not translate across contexts and perceptions. Cultures are in contact and conflict: the contrast between the Kowalski’s midwestern family dynamics and those of the Hmong family is stark. Despite, for instance, Walt’s grotesque violation of cultural norms, family members and friends trust a teenage girl’s intuition about inviting this crotchety mean old man for food and beer at a social/ceremonial event. Sue explains some of the cultural differences to Walt, whereas his own son fails to recognize his father’s call for help. Walt’s personal style of complaining about everything is mirrored in his son, and his self-centeredness is mirrored in his granddaughter. She has her eye on inheriting some of his belongings, and he has his eye on the physical decline of neighbor’s houses spoiling his view from the front porch.
Annoyed as he is by feeling imposed upon by his Hmong neighbors, Walt finds a use for the regard he has unexpectedly earned. Grudgingly, but not unwisely, he also allows himself to change, to grow into the opportunities that the situation affords. Circumstances unfold, as they always do, along a mix of predictable and unpredictable contours. In the end, Walt generates the only possible peaceful outcome. He is able to do this not because he is skillful at anticipating or manipulating the passions of others, but because he understands intimately – from the inside out – that fear and threat combine explosively under certain conditions.
The story is a compelling achievement on many levels. As contemporary film, it captures all the volatility of race-based nationalism within increasingly transnational societies. Xenophobia is hardly unique to the United States, and the random violence that once seemed particular to the States is spreading even to Belgium. As a potentially culminating work of art, Clint Eastwood does not offer a one-size-fits-all solution, but he does illustrate a complex set of realistic models from which we can glean inspiration.

talking turkey, making tools

Thanksgiving in Brussels
27 November 2008

thanksgiving dinner.jpg

Thanksgiving in the Verenigde Staten is a holiday and a protest. The mood at the dinner hosted by the American Club was celebratory, although rumblings went round during an aggressive invocation I admit I could have done without. I was also a bit disappointed that no mention was made of the terrorist attacks in Mumbai – they suffer (in part) for their friendship with us, no? Granted, I was affected because of personal connections and an upcoming trip. Otherwise, with the exception of the one-dimensional pumpkin pie (!), the company was outstanding and the meal delicious (especially the mushroom and green bean side dish and the perfectly-roasted turkey).


Conversations were typical I guess? Politics. Who’s traveling home for the holidays, who has family traveling here. Why. Why not. Food. Wine. Needing to buy a t-shirt. I got really jazzed when John started to talk about his work as an engineer, especially when he said:

“We make tools to make tools to make things.”

THAT, my friends, is a metaphor for the language-based concept of indexicality!

John makes mongo agricultural equipment. The design gets done somewhere in the US, the product testing gets done somewhere else (I forget), and then John gets to do the actual production. Just like machine shops where I have occasionally interpreted, a significant engineering challenge is to design and build the machine that makes the tool which can generate the exact part which is needed for the machine to be able to do what it is designed to do. That isn’t all we talked about, we also broached working in seven dimensions (and here I thought I was doing good by adding a fourth!), and John and Kathy went totally off on the Bernouli Principle, which, btw, doesn’t apply in supersonic space.
A few days prior to Thanksgiving, I had begun collecting links and thinking about what I might write. The draft I started was titled, mistakes are for learning. The list I compiled of situations we still need to heal included a story on Alaska Governor Sarah Palin’s opposition to American Indian Rights, the illegal occupation of Hawai’i by the U.S. since 1898, books accomplishing more than bombs in Pakistan, the need to work for peace in the Middle East, and the problem so many people still have with lesbian and gay rights.
The whole eclectic collection went out of my head instantly when a pal posted a twitter feed on Facebook as the terrorist attacks in Mumbai commenced in the wee hours of the morning. While relieved that my friends and their friends and families are all ok, I continue to consider that the more people I know the smaller the world becomes. I ache for the people who’ve lost loved ones, and for the families of the terrorists – not all of whom can be happy at what their children have done. Amitav Ghosh has written a thoughtful, clearheaded critique of the rush to compare these attacks to 9/11, reminding us that “9/11” refers

also to its aftermath, in particular to an utterly misconceived military and judicial response, one that has had disastrous consequences around the world.

Consequences. This brings me back around to that concept, indexicality. And the metaphor of a machine shop.

An index is the part of a word or phrase that points to something. Indexing is a referential act, a component of how we make meaning together, the core of what is understood when we achieve understanding. The notion of an index implies time, is perhaps even predicated upon time – at least if we understand time in a granular fashion, as a kind of motion that builds incrementally upon itself, accruing into sediments of meaningfulness. (See, if you can, this BBC documentary, Do You Know What Time It Is? by Professor Brian Cox)

So here’s the deal, as I see it. Our language really matters. What we say has substance. Our words effect the world. We elected Obama: he and his team are leading with language. Yes, they are putting together a centrist adminstration, but think “center” as in core. I’ve rarely been prouder to be American than in being part of Obama’s election, but we’ve got to get past the self-absorbed ways in which we sometimes celebrate being American as if the identity came to us pure. It did not. What is special and unique about America is that despite the terrible tragedies of our history, we absorb the lessons and move on. Now, ‘moving on’ means dealing well with the two extremes of radical diversity and horrific disenfranchisement. The former we must preserve and the latter requires redress.
The core must be solid; the boundaries must be clear. We – every single one of us who believes that there is a chance to finally turn the tide, as Ghosh says, in a long, long battle – we must use the words that signal a future that embraces everyone, instead of words “inviting” those who disagree to step outside the room. It is up to us to listen to the words and phrases of Obama and his team and make them, similar to the language of mathematics, “mean what they say, and say what they mean” (p. 14).

nationalism in the civilised present

The gathering was splendid.
The U.S. Ambassador’s Residence in Brussels is large, impressive, and immaculately tended. We arrived a few minutes early but were immediately ushered in to mingle in the hallways and anterooms, sipping wine, juice or water and munching delicious appetizers from trays replenished regularly by the constantly circulating staff. Conversation with the delightful company was light and entertaining; it was me being there that edged on the surreal. 🙂
I did not get to shake hands with Ambassador Fox, although we had a prolonged moment of eye contact just as he was being summoned to introduce a short film on Belgian-U.S. relations. An Invisible Bridge is a well-crafted summary of a unique international relationship between two peoples – or, rather between the idea of two nationalities with a special bond. Susceptible as I am to musically-produced emotional tweakery, I teared up at the presentation of NATO’s heroic mission “to secure the future of Europe”, noticing that a Belgian acquaintance next to me was also surreptitiously wiping tears away. When I asked her, post-film, she confessed. Her emotion stemmed from grief at unity lost – the togetherness of a single nation being ripped at its seams along a language divide.
Ambassador Fox is quite proud of the film and the interest it has generated across Belgium. I understand why: the ethos of the film appeals to a human need to belong, to know one is connected with others, a part of something larger than ourselves. The desire for a group identification is, at core, tribal; its modern form is the nation.
I am not advocating an end to the nation (not necessarily, for sure not yet). We need better institutional structures and mechanisms for balancing out economic disparities, and the state is still the best tool for experimenting with various possibilities. My problem with the film is along the lines articulated by a friend who rejected its glorification of war. For me, I can’t say that I saw “glorification” per se. War is a tragedy, and its effects are still viscerally and personally real for many people in Europe: both those who lived through WWII (while so many died) and the children of people who lived/died during or because of the war. The tragedy of war is also etched in the beings of the millions of immigrants to Europe from regions of the world still swamped under the reign of violence.
What I witnessed in the film was an acknowledgment of war’s horrors, and gratitude to those who made attempts to alleviate suffering. The problematic implication for me was the implicit assumption that war is a human inevitability. The film makes no statement about ending war; indeed, by shoring up the borders of nationality the film cultivates the exclusive attitude of distinction that makes war possible.
Still, I appreciate what I learned:

  • Peter Minuit “bought Manhattan from the Indians” circa 1626. (The history obliterated by the neutral statement of fact nonetheless remains.)
  • Father Pierre-Jean De Smet helped negotiate “peace” (my quotation marks) with Sitting Bull
  • the Red Star Line carried millions of Eastern Europeans to the U.S. at the end of the 19th century
  • the WWI Belgian Relief program organized by President Herbert Hoover, Ernest Solvay, and other prominent Belgians.
  • rebuilding of the Library at the University of Leuven after its destruction during WWI
  • the organized escape routes, known as the Comet Line, created during WWII for Allied soldiers
  • the Battle of the Bulge occurred here, in the Ardennes mountain range

Here’s a testimonial of a US veteran of the Bulge returning in 1994:

The most memorable part of our tour to Belgium was the warmth and gratitude expressed to us by the people of Houffalize and Bastogne. As Ken Aran expressed it, “our localized reception was more like a family. It was an experience I shall always cherish.” One of many examples of Belgian warmth for us veterans was the parade at Bastogne in which the not-so-young veterans marched the length of Bastogne’s main street to the McAuliffe Square. As we march along down the Rue Savlon, many school children hurried out to grasp a veteran’s hand and marched along before approving and politely applauding crowds that lined the sidewalks. There were not always enough veterans’ hands to go around, but some children then clasped hands with kids who were already joined with veterans.

There is a huge emphasis on the sentiment of Belgians’ appreciation for the US military’s role in freeing Belgium from the occupation of the Nazi’s. Obviously this is a triumph and a matter of pride for soldiers and civilians who fought and won that war. There is no doubt that the gratitude of the persons and families affected is genuine; nor is there doubt that that war had to be fought. Because humanity (as a sociobiological species) is still riding a plateau of violence (war is collective, cooperative behavior), no doubt there will continue to be some wars that remain necessary. But not as many as we have, and certainly not the wars predicated on a competitive economic fight over the planet’s resources.
We can do better than that. So I am disappointed on an ideological level with An Invisible Bridge. The economic ties between Belgium and the US are substantive: 900 US companies in Belgium, 500 Belgian companies in the US.
Let not the ties between the peoples of these nations be based on pillars of war or greed, and neither motivated by fear.

from artificial code to organic language

There are some wonderful layers of meaning conveyed by Rosa Lee in this music video, which is performed bilingually, in spoken English and American Sign Language.

“All I Want” opens with a literal translation of the English lyrics into a manual code that is not ASL. There is a transition – see if you can spot it – when Rosa Lee switches from the artificially-constructed signed code for spoken English into the fluid, natural rhythms of American Sign Language.
Then, the burden is placed on the English words to accommodate the rich, beautiful meanings she produces with ASL. The reversal is sweet. Can you perceive the difference? Now, imagine that you grow up with a code. There are rules and structures and boundaries, some of which make some kind of sense (or you create some meaning so that they do ‘make sense’), some of which appear isolated, with no obvious relationship to anything else. One can spend a lifetime bouncing off the elements of such codes. Perhaps the bouncing is motivated: a seeking for coherence, a search for niches where meanings are more transparent, a compulsion to re-discover relationships that passed one by in the slew of stimulus.
Life happens. Some people adapt to the code, either following its logic (or the logic they assign to it) or learning how to use the code to their own advantage. They play the game. Some play well, others not so well, but at least they feel they are in it, a part of society, a member of humanity.
Living happens. Many people are fortunate to grow up within a language that is whole, or have the organic neurochemistry to pick one up later in life. This does not mean their family is necessarily happy, or that society doesn’t have problems, or that culture solves everything. To live is to grow: bigger, smarter, faster, more lean, more mean – more kind, more generous; or less selfish, less demanding, less stubborn; more fluid. Individuals grow, but language is the medium for shared growth. Through language we learn together, teach each other, test ideas, discover errors. Language lets us breath inspiration into the world, infusing community, bridging differences, building commonality.
Thanks, Rosa Lee, for showcasing language’s glory.

Cairn at the Crossroads

Om Mani Padmi Om.jpg
Some thirty stalwart spirits braved the edge of Hurricane Hannah to begin building “Belchertown’s own pyramid.” Sailing knots secured the tarp which – propped up by two ladders – withstood the night, protecting us from the downpour and thrilling us with sounds of rain and wind as we christened the cairn near midnight with Wrongo Dongo. Howls mixed with cheers in a cacophony of exuberance as we embraced the spirit of ritual, blending our voices with nature’s infinite chanting. I was asked for a convocation (see “Other Use“); all I could muster was Thank You. I felt calm and peaceful in our candlelit circle, humbled by and proud of my friends.

“Happiness is an elusive thing. It has
something to do with having beautiful shoes, but it is
about so much else . . . About having
friends like this.”

Blue Shoes and Happiness
Alexander McCall Smith
p. 217 (2006)
[past tense changed to present]

eyes of compassion.jpg
In all important respects, we gathered as we always do – indulging delicious food, drinking comfortably, talking, dancing, teasing, touching, teaching and calling each other into being. I learned so much, as I always do. 🙂 Everyone oriented to the ceremonial element in their own way. Some recalled significant moments of shared interpersonal interaction, acknowledged difficult aspects of private histories and/or future challenges, and speculated on the symbolism of our individually swirling energies encapsulated by nature’s capacity for storm. Others lost themselves in dance, told tall tales, lampooned themselves and others, played tricks and carefully watched for the precise moment to deliver a perfect pun. Most of us did some of everything. We take our fun seriously, without letting fun completely overtake the serious.
balance & cat.jpg
There was power in our utterances last night and this morning. Dorothee educated me on linguistic minorities in France and the Belgian Flemish/French controversy (more on these later!), and Nick proposed jazz as a uniquely unreproducible medium. The confluence of these topics with my upcoming research woke me right up (or was it the Turkish coffee?!)
“Oh yea, that was in quotes,” Don said, walking by a few minutes later as Nick explained, “I don’t want my life to be an open book, I want people to question me.” We were talking about how online social networking could remove mystery from our lives by producing a vast field of ambient awareness (another longer-term side effect of ambient awareness could be the evolutionary loss of certain cognitive skills associated with fact-based memory). An iPhone provided entertainment for awhile, its accelerometer on display with Newton’s Cradle . This put me in mind of the results of a recent “mind map” of local and global trends affecting a particular organization’s anti-racism and social justice activities, in which nearly all trends were described in terms of increase (more more more and faster) instead of decrease.
How did we get from the accelerometer to air-conditioning? I cannot recall, but the comment reminded me of Christopher Dickey’s claim:

as air conditioning conquered the lethargy-inducing climate and Northerners by the millions abandoned the rust belt for the sun belt, the past wasn’t forgotten or forgiven so much as put aside while people got on with their lives and their business.

from Southern Discomfort, a Newsweek article
by (fyi) the son of the author of Deliverance)
about the U.S. presidential campaign and contemporary race relations

Somehow nostalgia for the “old days” of answering machines (when you received your telephone messages only when you got home at the end of the day) got intertwined with the luxuries of heating and cooling . . . The Chosen One mused, “we’ve had heat for a long time, it’s harder to make cold.” Indeed, air-conditioning as we know it today is a phenomenon of only the last century: for millenia humans have known how to keep ourselves warm, but only “yesterday” have we figured out how to make ourselves cool. (Uh oh. Global warming is here, now.)
When Brandon left is when it hit me. Some of these people I really may not see again. Dhara reminisced about meeting me at bowling her first year here. She and Henk had been the ones to unveil the group present. (Rumor Mill: going viral. First batch original orders for t-shirts and bumperstickers should be placed here.)
Yes and Raz snaps photos.jpg
The Nepalese mantra gracing the cairn is, as best I understand it to date, a kind of paean to precious knowledge and pure beauty. We have created physical evidence of passing this way; and less tangibly we have left our marks upon each other – bits of spirit inspiring compelling turning and calling us on, always with the invitation to return. “It’s good,” Franz said today, “to be a little bit bothered by each other.” Yes – such is the evidence of communal connections: they persist!
the book.jpg

I pledge my best to go as the water flows.

space out of time

The first act of will is to decide that time does not matter.

The second is to surrender will to the rock.


Immersed in the presence of this new language, I forgot that I was here for a reason! “We know you love your metaphors,” Rachel teased before I came. The other roommate just laughed. 🙂

Lauren described my fourth rock balance as “precarious.” Ah – momentarily I recognized myself. “Taut control,” said Andy Goldsworthy in an excerpt of a video we watched, “can be the death of our work.” As the workshop ended, during the closing circle, Rita recalled Lila’s introduction of Hermes, the god of boundaries and the travelers who cross them. (Hermes is also the god of thieves: what greater boundaries are there to cross than those imposed by custom and law? (shhhh!))

I had forgotten. Our teacher, Lila Higgins, spoke first in the closing circle, describing the cairn she’d built a few days earlier at the crossroads leading to our final rock balancing site,

Cairn at the Crossroads.jpg

and her delight in communion with the unknown balancer who had rebuilt it in the days since. Listening to her, my consciousness was nudged to remember: I was here to mark the current turn in the trajectory of my life. Then, after others including myself had spoken, Rita recalled Hermes. How had that god slipped my mind?! It seems I had achieved – if only for a short while – the intention expressed by another workshopper,

“to explore the present as a rock does.”


We watched videos of Bill Dan building rock balances, and also of George Quasha. My mind required time (exposure, continuity) to shift from its usual operational state-of-consciousness (ahem) to this altered perceptual state “charged with an air of contingency” in which time has no substance. For hours at a stretch, I experience only concentration and sensation: ripples of subdued emotion (annoyance, tenderness, impatience, resolve, fear of failure, renewed commitment) and yearning for that satisfying moment when the rock finds its place.


Will my intellectual work emanate a similar resonance? I hope so. 🙂 I have felt similar types of ‘click moments‘ in the past. Trusting them has led me here – to this junction, where I discover conviction deepening without reducing uncertainty.


Carter Ratcliff introduces the artistic ethic of George Quasha (who is inspired by John Cage) with words that likewise describe the ethical center of my action research goal:

“…an axis is like an intention:
a force that, as it
generates possibilities, gives them a
provisional but
intelligible order.”


More photos of rock balancers and some rock balances produced during this workshop are on this page at Lila’s rockbalancer site.
See also hickoree, rebranca46 (Rocks Balancing), and bebalance (Super Balance: Birds, Bottle, Bricks, Birds Again…).