Archive for Ideas

The In Crowd

 

 

“You ain’t been nowhere
’til you’ve been in
with The In Crowd.”

— Dobie Gray (lyrics by Billy Page

 

 

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Last week, a friend of mine lamented the fact that some important content she was interested in was available only on Facebook, Twitter, and other social media.  The bad news was that this content happened to be the marketing material from the publisher of her soon-to-be-released book.  The problem, in her words, was this: “I don’t do social media and don’t intend to start!
After some thought, I replied, “It seems to me that everyone assumes these days that we are all is hooked up to these social-media websites; and, if you aren’t, you don’t have a clue what’s going on.    It’s like the new ‘In Crowd.’ “
And then a memory popped into my head — “Remember the song from back in the day …”

An Old Song Pops into My Head

Let’s drift back a moment to 1964.  Every Saturday morning on radio station KYA, my favorite disc jockey, Emperor Gene Nelson, would count down the “Top 30 Hits” for that week.  A lot of new songs were introduced on those Saturdays; and it was absolutely essential for us 14-year-olds to keep up with the latest music.  High school was a big change for me.  After eight years in the same school, in the same class with pretty much the same faces, the transition from being an 8th grader to being a High School freshman was intimidating.

My freshman class had ten times as many kids as my 8th-grade class had.  I knew thirty-some kids and the rest of the 300-some kids in the Freshman class were strangers.  But, even as a stranger, like other 9th-graders, I quickly realized that listening to the right music would be required to fit in to my new world.  So, I listened carefully — to the Beatles, The Stones, The Supremes, Leslie Gore, The Dixie Cups, The Dave Clark Five, Dusty Springfield — to all the music Emperor Nelson played on KYA.

With all that in mind, one Saturday morning, The Emperor introduced a new song that got my attention.  The song was “The In Crowd.”  Coming from a school where I had always known everyone, the idea of an “In Crowd” was new to me.  The big, bold voice of Doby Gray sounded like a voice of authority.

 

Here is what the song said:

The In Crowd
By Dobie Gray (recording released December, 1964); lyrics by Billy Page

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Not all of the ideas in the song were new.  I already knew that some 8th graders were considered more “cool” than others (certainly more “cool” than I was); and “cool” usually meant exhibiting behaviors that other kids admired.  I remember a friend of mine, Michael Savage, (who had an older brother who could teach him “cool”) showed up one day in the 8th grade with “a new way of walkin’,” like the song said.  When he walked across the courtyard at school, with his slow, purposeful gait and aloof expression, he caught the admiring eye of those of us who were “less cool.”

So, back then, I suppose we 8th-graders had a sense that some of us were especially “in”;
but the following year when the song came out, to my 9th-grade ears, some of these “In Crowd” song lyrics revealed ideas that separated those who were “in” from the rest of us. Two examples:
First:  it hadn’t occurred to me that some people “know what the in crowd knows” and presumably, those were things that I didn’t know, and
Second:  apparently, the chosen few “go where the in crowd goes” and “if it’s square, we ain’t there.”
I wasn’t completely sure what “square” meant — except that I suspected that “square” included attributes that I probably had and included places that I went.  (Uh, maybe places like the library or the store where I supplied my stamp collection?  I suppose they were “square.”)

As I became more accustomed to high school, some of the lyrics were actually troubling:
the assertion that “our share is always the biggest amount” didn’t sit well with my teenage sense of fairness and I wondered, as an outsider, ‘what earned you that biggest share’ — other than trivial stuff like “our own way of walkin’ ” and “our own way of talking’.”  The song assigned behaviors to those of us who were not in “The In Crowd” that I didn’t like:

They make way day or night
They know the in crowd is ‘out of sight.’

Who said I was going to “make way” for anyone?”  On reflection (or what passed for ‘reflection’ in a 14-year-old), “Spendin’ cash, talkin’ trash” did not sound like something worthy of respect.

Evolution
As time went on, and this Freshman became a Sophomore, and so on, other bits of evidence confirmed my suspicion (and hope) that there were other ways to earn respect — things like getting good grades, succeeding at athletics, reading books, joining clubs, being a good friend, etc.  The music continued to be important to me (and I learned to keep quiet about my Frank Sinatra and Tony Bennett records), but I came to realize that a narrowly defined “in crowd,” that merely imitated approved “cool” behaviors, was not particularly appealing.  I considered that a person, even in high school, could be part of more than one “crowd.”  One of my teachers had a sign on the classroom wall that I copied into my notebook.  It said:

“They laugh at me because I’m different.
I laugh at them because they are all the same.”

Fast Forward to Today
So, as I mentioned, these “In Crowd” lyrics from 54 years ago did not spring into my memory out of nowhere.  The pervasive nature of Facebook, Twitter, and other social media seems to have created a new “in crowd.”  While digital media was originally promoted as being inclusive; in fact, the “In” and ”Out” feature of digital social media seems to have grown more exclusive.  Has Facebook become a new “In Crowd?”  We have learned lately that there are things we have to give up to be a member of that crowd.

Looking at this topic through the lens of today, I think we can hear these lyrics in The News that we hear every day.  We seem to be surrounded by people who want us to believe that we must be members of a particular exclusive “in crowd” or we are not properly American.  Some promote the idea that the survival of that American “in crowd” requires its members to exclude people who are different.  Are we being fed an exclusive “In-Crowd-First” philosophy?

The optimist in me wants believe that the kind of exclusive “In Crowd” behavior we saw as teenagers of 1964 eventually disappears with age and is replaced with something more sensible and grown up.  There is evidence, however, that my optimism may be naïve.  Is today’s “in crowd” mentality growing rather than receding?  Is it dangerous?  How divisive can it get?

But, I do notice that some crowds are emerging with more inclusive intentions — crowds like “Enough is Enough” and “Never Again.”  Some of the most articulate and welcoming spokespersons of those crowds are not much older than I was in 1964 and they are starting to emerge as the “grown-up” voices of our time.  And the crowds, just last weekend, have been quite large.  Do these “in crowds” offer just another short-lived “new way of walkin’ ”  and ” new way of talkin’ ” as they did in my youth?

Or is something more enduring, more inclusive, perhaps more promising, on the horizon?

The Good Old Days?

 

Nothing is more responsible for ‘The Good Old Days’ than a bad memory.”
      — Franklin P. Adams

“These are ‘The Good Old Days.’ ”
— Carly Simon

 

 

 

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We’ve All Heard It— Or Said it — Some Version of It

I’ve heard it a number of times lately, in various forms, by people of different ages or with very different points of view — myself included — some version of:

“How did we get here?  Things were never this bad back in _____________”
(and here we fill in the blank with our version of ‘a better time’)

Mighta been “back in the 1950s, when I was a kid,”  Or maybe “back in my thirties when my kids were little.”  Some might offer: “The 1970s, when I was a kid.”   Or “at the peak of my career when I was at the top of my game.”  Or “back when movies were better” or “back when the government worked better” or “when I could hit consistently from the three-point-circle.”  Or how about “when the world (or the country or the city or the neighborhood) was safer (or cleaner, friendlier, easier to understand or had less traffic)?”  Or “two years ago, before  . . . ”

You know: “The Good Old Days.”  You remember.

I suspect each generation can recall a decade or a year (or a month or a day or even a place) when/where the things that are annoying or troublesome or frightening about today were NOT happening (or at least did not seem so annoying or troublesome or frightening in our memory).  Do you have a memory of such a time — a time that you remember as being better than today in some way?  I bet you have some images in your mind that represent what was better about that time.  Were the people better, more reliable, more friendly, smarter?  Were the choices available to you more appealing back then?  Easier to achieve?  Less of a struggle?  More fun?  Did stuff make more sense to you?  Were those times really better?

A Well-Used Example

People my age (the ‘baby-boom’ generation) like to talk about the 1950s and early 1960s, remembering it as a time of stability and simplicity, when music was more harmonious, when post-war America was expanding its prosperity and influence in the world and building lots of shiny new things — cars and highways, and buildings, and corporations, and …  stuff.  Maybe we remember that we liked our neighborhood better somehow.

Just for fun, let’s take a look at that time, just was an example.  We’ve got pictures …

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Some of us remember the time before seat belts, riding in the back of station wagons and pick-up trucks. It was a time when there weren’t so many rules; but I guess we don’t want to think about the danger we were in every day. Seat belts started showing up at the end of the 1950s and many of us actually started using them in the mid-1960s.

Other memories come to mind from that era —

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Remember when eight-track stereo (above, left) started showing up in cars about 1964?  And when they were replaced by cassette players in the late 1970s? Yes, this was way before CDs (1982).  But, we’re getting ahead of ourselves.  Here’s what really mattered at the end of the 1950s:

 

 

Before any of us cared about cars, here is how you found your friends in the neighborhood in the 1950s.  Here, they’re all down the street at Kelly’s (he had a swimming pool).

 

 

 

 

 

 

And do you remember when you (OK, your parents) could drive up to a hamburger place (like A&W or the “Panther Drive-In” in Antioch) and the ‘Car Hop’ would come out to the car (sometimes on roller skates) and serve your food on one of these window trays?  (What do you mean you never went to the Panther Drive-In in Antioch?  There was a time when it was the center of the universe. Didn’t you know?)

Me?  OK, I hung out at Fosters Freeze.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Surely you remember when every business had a cash register like this one on the left?  Maybe you started using an Instamatic camera with flash cubes to take photos around 1963?  (It used film — remember film?)  But, most important of all was the transistor radio, above on the right.  I’m sure you, like me, listened to the San Francisco Giants (as described by Russ Hodges and Lon Simmons) on one of these.  And, on Saturday mornings, I listened as Emperor Gene Nelson counted down the Top 30 songs on KYA.  Then in the late evening on KYA, Big Daddy Tom Donohue played those same songs and read commercials for Clearasil (the Acne Cream).  He would sign on at the beginning of his show with these words: “This is your Big Daddy Tom Donohue.  I’m here to clear up your face and mess up your mind.”  No fooling, he actually said that every night — don’t you remember?

“The Fifties” Come Into Sharper Focus

Those are some of the things that I remember about that era.  I claim that “The Fifties,” the fabled time of stability, predictability and good times, lasted from 1950 until November of 1963.  After that, troubling, unexpected things started happening — or maybe I just became more aware of a wider world with more complexity and danger than I had seen before.  I learned that America was in a mortal struggle against The Soviet Union who, we were told, wanted to kill us all with nuclear weapons because they believed that we wanted to kill them with those same weapons.  When we practiced diving under our desks at school in the event of a nuclear attack, I became painfully aware that the wider world was a threat to us right here in my town.

On the evening news, Walter Cronkite starting telling us some very disturbing things including the fact that my hero at the time had been murdered on the streets of Dallas.  When I showed up in high school in 1964, I began to learn that wars were brewing all over the world and Americans not much older than me were being sent to fight in those wars.  I learned that while I was having my stable and secure childhood in my peaceful California town, others in my own state lived in towns that had bloody race riots.  The only people of color I met growing up were the housekeepers who worked for my mother and basketball players who played for Pittsburg High School in the town next to ours.  I wondered why there were no Black students in my high school and none seemed to live in my town.  It wasn’t until 1968 — about the time that Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy were murdered — that I learned that a class-action lawsuit had been filed against realtors who had conspired to make sure that no Blacks moved into Antioch.  I remember being shocked and embarrassed as I packed up to go away to college.

Every day, it seemed, there was more distressing news and I became increasing aware that my own stable and peaceful life was an exception, not the rule, and I was living in the middle of troubled times across my country and around the world.

Well, so much for my example of “The Good Old Days.”

Waiting?  What Might We Learn?

Just as we learn that it’s foolish to look back and wish for a return to “good old days” we think we remember, it also turns out to be foolish to wait for better days ahead.  A song I remember from 1971, written and sung by Carly Simon, advises us to invest our energies into making TODAY the best it can be.  The song, “Anticipation,” tells us that pinning our hopes on the future is wasteful.  She wrote:

Anticipation, anticipation
Is makin’ me late
Is keepin’ me waitin’

She offers this advice:
I’m no prophet and I don’t know nature’s ways
So I’ll try and see into your eyes right now
And stay right here ’cause these are the good old days
These are the good old days. These are the good old days.
These are the good old days.

I take her advice to suggest that we have to invest in THIS day.  I observe that there is much to like about today — I am surrounded by people who matter to me and who make my life matter.  If today is not what we want it to be, we, along with those close to us, have the responsibility to make it better.

My conclusion?  The past and the future are both flawed.  THESE are the only “Good Old Days” we get.   Maybe they’re only as good as we make them.

An Optimist Looks At 2018

“I’m an optimist.  I tend to believe that, at some point, common sense and justice
will prevail, at least for a while.
I was raised to believe that you
can make good things happen.
Let’s face it, nobody gets out of here alive.
So, if today isn’t to our liking, it’s on us to
own it and make it better. We have more than enough people trying to make it worse.”
— PapaDan
.”

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2017 was a strange year

An optimist might be hard pressed to use 2017 as a guide for deciding what to expect from 2018.  Events in 2017 were certainly not predictable from evidence provided by 2016.  For most of the year, how many predicted the outcome of the election, the reversal on the Paris Climate Accord, the childish name-calling that emerged in public discourse, a disparaging attitude toward the victims of natural disasters, and the threat of war around the world.  Nobody expected that 2017 would be a year of women’s empowerment with a long list of male celebrities falling from power and influence after revelations of sexual misconduct.  And, those stories are NOT over yet.  None of them.  An optimist has to look elsewhere to make predictions.

This Optimist’s Predictions for 2018

So, with 2017 as an unreliable body of evidence, how can we decide what to expect from 2018?  Here are some things that this optimist expects are possible.

We’ll start with the important stuff:
The Academy Awards: “The Post” will win the award for Best Picture. How could it miss —  it highlights the value of courage, the importance of the press in holding the powerful accountable, and the indispensable role of a woman pushing against daunting obstacles — the perfect messages for our times — AND it stars Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks!  Bet the farm on it.  (OK, so I predicted “La La Land” would win last time; and I was right for about 30 seconds.)

The Grammy Awards: I haven’t the faintest idea, since I haven’t heard of most of the nominees. — although the album “Tony Bennett Celebrates 90” sounds promising.

The NBA Championship — The Warriors will win — nuff said.  (How many players can share the MVP award?)

The World Series —  I can’t comment on the outcome of a World Series between the Yankees and the Dodgers; it violates every principle of “The Optimist Creed” (take a  look here) that used to hang on the wall in my Dad’s office.  So, I am required to predict that My Giants will win (maybe . . . someday).

The Super Bowl —  I really don’t care, except that I hope football will continue to decrease in popularity, starting at the local school-district level and permeating upward.  (BUT, Nancy has a terrific Super Bowl Party that MUST continue! — It’s all about the commercials and the wine.)

Now, Let’s Get Serious  . . .

The U.S. Economy:
Paid family leave will become increasingly widespread — On January 1st, New York joined California and other states requiring paid family leave in more categories of employment.

The (new) Great American Migration begins — Silicon Valley and Wall Street will follow Amazon’s example and open major campuses in American regions where unemployment is high and real-estate prices and taxes are low. Depending on how fast and how thoroughly this strategy plays out, this migration could change  . . .  well  . . .  everything we currently understand about American life from politics to economics to regional culture.

Cost of Living vs Income — Minimum wages are rising in some 18 states at the start of 2018 (ranging from $7.95 in Missouri, to $13.50 in parts of California, to $15.45 around Seattle).  The Great Migration mentioned above will strengthen this trend.  The U.S. inflation rate is predicted to hover around 3.2% in 2018 (up a bit from 2017); BUT, the coming budget deficits caused by “tax reform,” may dramatically inflate the inflation rate nationally.  We’ll have to wait and see.

Home purchases and mortgages  — High house prices left over from 2017 are likely to stay high. People who live in places that lose historic industries (say, coal mining) will find it expensive to move where the jobs are and those opportunities are likely to require different skills and more education.  With all the rebuilding that will be necessary after the  hurricanes and fires, housing will be a challenge for the working class. We’ll have to see how/if the “Migration” works out.

The stock market will continue to rise, and even more sharply as corporate tax cuts take effect.  Some will continue to assert (citing “alternate facts”) that profits reflected in stock prices lead to increases in hiring and wages.  Economic history teaches that employers don’t hire employees because they receive a tax cut.  Hiring has been stimulated primarily by one overarching feature: customers with money in their pockets.  Therefore, the factors likely to lead to large-scale hiring are mostly absent from the business outlook for 2018.  Instead, the market boom will continue to result in higher dividends for shareholders and profitable mergers that lead to consolidation (read: layoffs).  THEN, corporate celebrating will be interrupted by an Autumn sell-off like the one in 1987.  Such a sell-off and the above-mentioned migration could confirm the disjointed relationship between the stock market and the rest of the economy.  Is that good news or bad news?  This optimist predicts the result will be a dramatic election turn-about in November.

“The Mall” vs “Downtown” — A life-and-death struggle is developing between malls, with corporate stores like Macy’s and Nordstrom, and locally owned downtown shops.  AND both of these business models are threatened by Amazon-style online shopping.  Will online commerce drive local stores out of business?  How many?  What will happen to the people working in those stores?  This optimist makes a two-stage prediction.  First, online shopping will continue to strain local stores well into 2018.  But, I expect large numbers of people to make the conscious decision to “shop local.”  We’ll get tired of sending online purchases back to Amazon because they don’t fit right or don’t look the same as they do online.  More shoppers will decide that they want to try on their purchases.  Amazon seems to agree, given their purchase of Whole Foods and Target. If that happens soon enough, local stores may continue to be the backbone of local economies.
Optimists are mixed on this.  We’ll have to wait and see.

World Events
The Korean Peninsula will begin to show peaceful signs by the end of January, despite the bellicose influence of the U.S. president in the region.
— On January 1st, Kim Jong Un extended an olive branch to South Korea, proposing discussions about the possibility of a North Korean delegation to the upcoming Winter Olympics in South Korea. He expressed the goal of a “peaceful resolution with our southern border.”   South Korea agreed to high-level discussions on January 2nd.  Prediction: the U.S. will continue to become more isolated in foreign affairs as other nations — in Europe, Asia, and the Middle east — explore solving worldwide problems (like global warming, “a two-state solution,” and European cooperation) without the obstacles created by rhetoric from the U.S. president.  This promises to be both a problem (Step One) and a solution (Step Two) as an eventual rebalancing begins.

The Winter Olympics in South Korea — For two weeks in February the world will focus on the games alongside the warlike rhetoric of Kim Jong Un and Donald Trump.  Many have suggested that this event is a recipe for disaster in the current international climate (remember the massacre at the Summer Olympics in Munich in 1972?).  This optimist has come around to the view that, this time, the Olympics will actually do what they were intended to do — bring people together and lead to better understanding among people who look at the world through different eyes.  North and South Korea may come around to find common interests and make their own way without the superpower rhetoric that has kept them apart for the past fifty years.

A Royal Wedding  — Prince Harry and American Meghan Markle will be married in May.  It will be a day for Brits to enjoy their royal anachronism.  As usual, however, America’s top-level weirdness is interfering.  Will the Royal Family insist that the sitting American president be invited or will the groom simply invite his buddy Barack and cause another Trump-centered kerfuffle?  This optimist predicts that Obama will be invited to the wedding as a friend of the family and Trump will announce his rejection of the (not yet offered) invitation.  Most Brits will say good riddance, keep calm, and carry on. Trump will probably announce that the British Prime Minister will not be invited to his Fourth of July tea party at Club Mar-a-Lago.

Domestic Politics
Trump’s Approval Rating will dramatically increase to 25% after he resigns in June. Two possible reasons will be offered for his resignation: 1) for health reasons or   2) “It was always my intention to make Mike Pence President; so, this is another in my long list of successes.”

The American 2018 Mid-Term Election —  The November election will decide the control of the House and the Senate.  This Optimist predicts that Democrats will win a slim majority in both houses and begin efforts to restore America’s leadership in areas like global climate, science-based energy independence, a two-state solution in the Middle East, income equality, a sensible tax structure, and other urgent policy areas.  Prediction: in the short term, they will fail in many of those efforts.  The Trump (or Pence) Administration will stand in their way as best they can.  But, it will be a first step.  The work will continue in statehouses and city councils across America.  We’ll find out what we’re made of and it will take some time in the imperfect way we optimists always conduct ourselves.

We’ll see. This optimist expects to be surprised.

Finally,
This optimist believes that the key to a better 2018 will not be found in the national news; it will have to come from the way we treat each other right here in our own neighborhoods and families.  While race, class, gender, and religion will continue to be a source of national and international conflict, the way forward must be local — in our selection of the people we choose to emulate — teachers, neighbors, you and me.  We can affect change, but we have to be patient.  I like a line I read from distinguished journalist Eric Sevareid near the end of his life:
“I’m sort of a pessimist about tomorrow and an optimist about the day after tomorrow.”

And as President John F. Kennedy said near the end of his inaugural address in January of 1961:
“All this will not be finished in the first one hundred days.
Nor will it be finished in the first one thousand days,
nor in the life of this administration,
nor even perhaps in our lifetime on this planet.
But let us begin.”

Yes, the sun will rise in the morning, good people will do the work they do best, be a good friend, be a good parent. a good sister or brother — and oh, YES, drink some good wine.  Some will find ways to bring others along with them, helping those who need help and encouraging those who need only encouragement.  Optimists will take inspiration from those optimists who have gone before them — like Winston Churchill, who said:
“Success is not final, failure is not fatal:
it is the courage to continue that counts.”

Happy New Year!

Grace — 2017

 

 

“I do not understand the mystery of grace — only that it meets us where we are but does not leave us where it found us.”

            — Ann Lamott

 

 

Click here to download a PDF of this post:  Grace_ConVivio_2017_LITE

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Extending a Tradition of Grace

On Saturday, December 9, 2017, Gretta and I continued our twenty-year tradition by attending an event called “A Cathedral Christmas.” It is an annual Christmas concert of the Men’s and Boy’s Chorus, orchestra, and pipe organ, at Grace Cathedral in San Francisco.

I have written about this annual event before on ConVivio (notably in 2009 and 2015), and each time my goal was to shine a light on the powerful effect it always has on our experience of the holiday season.  For us, the tradition starts with its magnificent music, having the ongoing effect on the lives of real people of all types that thoughtful art can have.  In addition to the music itself, the venue — Grace Cathedral on California Street in San Francisco — contributes its powerful presence and enduring heritage to our encounter with the holiday season. And last but not least, this event intentionally involves itself in the tenor of the times in which we live — for Grace Cathedral has long served to participate in the life of its broad Bay Area community not only with its Christian Anglican traditions, not only with its music, but also by contributing to the everyday issues and struggles, both diverse and universal, that affect the lives of our society.

The Venue: Grace Cathedral
Grace Cathedral has long committed itself to be a house of prayer for all people and a place where all are welcome — prayerful or not.  I observe that those two commitments set it apart from many other institutions that seem on the surface to be similar.  Over the years I have noticed that the cathedral community provides many gifts, usually without a lot of fanfare, to people of all kinds whether they are part of their faith community or not. I learned, for example, of the hundreds of homeless who have been housed in the cathedral basement over the years.  It also has lived up to a well-earned reputation for welcoming members of society who have not always felt welcome elsewhere in the Bay Area and the nation.

Left: “Ghiberti’s Doors,” copies of the 15th-century originals residing in Florence, reveal a welcoming heritage — the originals started the Italian Renaissance in bringing great art to everyday lives of real people.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Grace Cathedral: inside and out

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Grace Cathedral can get colorful: inside and out

The Music
Usually, the Christmas concert focuses on two principal themes: 1) the joy associated with the birth of The Child — represented by well-known Christmas carols in the first and third segments of the performance — and 2) the peacefulness settling over the ‘Holy Land’ and the world, associated with the hope for peace that The Child would bring – represented by classic choral and orchestral music performed with sweetness and passion throughout the concert.   The signature piece of the Grace Cathedral Music Ministry has always been a tune by Hugh MacKinnon called “Sleeps Judea Fair.”  Gretta and I always look forward to this tune, in the final segment of the concert, as the highlight of the season. The lyrics and the slow, soft harmony of the voices recreate the joy and peace we expect from the season.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Settling into our usual seats at the acoustic center of the cathedral — one of America’s premier acoustical rooms — the expressions on the faces of the stained-glass figures of the saints all around the cathedral contributed to the warmth, peace, and harmony that we had come to expect.  I opened the printed program and was pleased to find our favorite piece listed near the end of the program along with a few others I did not recognize.

The first segment of the concert contained the familiar choral pieces we had come to expect – like John Wade’s 18th-century carol “O Come, All Ye Faithful.”  When the Men’s and Boys’ chorus left the altar for an intermission, the organ solo began.  The organist’s right hand began by trying to play the familiar tune of “Christ Is Born Today,” while the left hand alternately ignored and ‘drowned out’ that melody with some deep, dissonant, and unfamiliar chords.  I took this to represent the deep discord that “The Holy Land,” and much of the world, has been experiencing.  We heard in the news that morning of the president’s announcement regarding the status of Jerusalem, which sparked some violent protests there and in Bethlehem itself.

Message received.

The peacefulness that The Child brought to this region centuries ago is not working out so well.  I suppose this concert, to be true to its themes, needed to reflect that unrest and discord alongside the hope for peace and harmony that is the focus of so many of our prayers and greetings during this holiday season.

Then, after applause for the organ soloist, the singers returned for the final segment that traditionally conveys the message of peace and serenity culminating in their signature piece, “Sleeps Judea Fair.”  It was as beautiful, soothing, and peaceful as always, offering a wish for “grace” — to Judea, to the world, and to us:

“Let the Christ Child, meekly smiling, infant wise all woe beguiling
Grant His grace to thee.”

–> Listen to it here — recorded live in Grace Cathedral:

An Acknowledgement of the Times in Which We Live
After we were treated to that reward, the Episcopal Bishop of California, Rev. Marc Andrus, thanked us all for being there and gave us some words of wisdom for the season.  His ministry, consistent with the ongoing mission of Grace Cathedral, is focused on the key issues of our time and place: peace and justice, immigration reform, climate change, civil rights for LGBT persons, and health care.  On this night, he reminded us that these are hard times and drew a remarkable analogy for this season.  He suggested that “our brothers and sisters of the animal kingdom” tend to slow down and prepare to go to sleep as the cold days and nights of winter approach.  We humans, on the other hand, are called to do something different —  it is a time for us to wake up, become more energetic, and do more of the things that need to be done, especially for others.  He then suggested some specific ways we can do that in our own communities.

With that, the concert concluded with its final choral pieces.  The lyrics of one of those, “A Stable Lamp is Lighted,” accompanied by the orchestra and organ, provided the stark reminder that our joy must be tempered with the reality of the hard times yet to come for the child born this day and, perhaps, for us all.  Just before the finale, the voices intoned this piece of reality:

So then, we could celebrate: “Hark! The Herald Angels sing:   Glory to the newborn king.”

The Message — More than hope for “Grace” during hard times
As we walked out of the cathedral on that beautiful December night, our world remains a place of suffering and danger, walking right alongside an enduring hope and optimism for which we Americans are famous.  The message: we are right to be optimistic and hope for peace, harmony, and relief from suffering; but it is not enough to merely admire the problem and hope for the best.  Rev. Andrus suggested that we must wake up and become active.  We can start in our own families, neighborhoods, and towns, giving each other what we need, when we can, and contributing to organizations that do the work we can’t do on our own — some examples: Planned Parenthood, Reach Out and Read, Boys and Girls Clubs, Sierra Club, Valley Humane Society, American Civil Liberties Union, KQED, The Kidney Foundation, Grace Cathedral, and so many others.  All are hopeful, optimistic efforts. We can make a difference, starting right here.

Words of Thanks

 

“And yet it moves”
(in the original Italian: “Eppur si muove”).”
— Galileo Galilei,
Gentleman of Florence, 1632

 

 

Click here to download a PDF of this post: ConVivio_Thanks_TheSun_Nov16_2017

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“The Sun, with all its planets revolving around it and depending upon it,
still can find the time to ripen a bunch of grapes
as if it had nothing else in the universe to do.” — Galileo Galilei, 1632

This line first captured my imagination when I saw it on the back label of a bottle of red wine (where else would I look for memorable, meaningful words, eh?).  I was looking for some wine for our Thanksgiving dinner table, the family was going to be there, and I would be offering a Thanksgiving Toast — I thought these words were perfect.

When the time came, with the bottle in my hand I mentioned that we all have so much to be thankful for: our families, our homes, the work we do, the people who are kind to us, the food and wine we enjoy, and the good times we have.  Then, using Galileo’s words, I gave thanks for The Sun, representing all of the ‘greater powers’ that contribute to all of that goodness  — whatever and whomever they might be.  The words were fun, appropriate to the occasion, and they brought smiles.  We lifted our glasses and said “Thanks’ to each other.
Galileo’s words helped us do that.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


A Random Bunch of Thanksgiving Photos

Galileo’s Words In Context
So, if we let our minds drift back 385 years to Galileo’s time, we learn that he caused quite a kerfuffle, to say the least, when he first used these words.  In a nutshell, in 1633, the Roman Inquisition wanted to torture him to death for saying these words.   WHAT!!!???  Looking back with our 21stt-century eyes, it seems unlikely that the church fathers objected to the generous role of the Sun in producing wine grapes.  And I suppose they weren’t threatened by the assertion that the Sun was capable of this level of multi-tasking.  So, what was the problem?

The offense was that Galileo contradicted the church’s insistence that the Earth stands immovable at the center of the universe and that the Sun, and everything else, moves around the Earth every day.  The Roman Inquisitors decided that Galileo’s conclusion, that the Earth moves, threatened the absolute power of the church.  They said that his words were “foolish and absurd in philosophy, and formally heretical since it explicitly contradicts in many places the sense of Holy Scripture.”  THAT was serious — serious enough to put Galileo on trial for his life.

So, how did it turn out?  The outcome, seen through 21st-century eyes, was quite familiar.  First, Galileo made the intellectual case.  He said, initially, in his defense before the Inquisitors:

“I do not feel obliged to believe that the same God who has endowed us with senses, reason, and intellect has intended us to forgo their use and by some other means to give us knowledge which we can attain by them.”

In other words, does God really want us to deny what our “God-given” intellect reveals to us?  In his treatise “Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems,” he went a bit too far:

 

“In the long run my observations have convinced
me that some men, reasoning preposterously, first
establish some conclusion … that impresses them
so deeply that one finds it impossible ever to get it
out of their heads.”
— from Galileo’s: “Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems”

 

 

 

Does that sound familiar?  Well, as you might imagine, that approach failed.  The Inquisitors made clear that these two arguments would lead directly to his torture and death.  So, Galileo took another approach.  He did exactly what he said he “did not feel obliged” to do — he denied what his intellect revealed.  First, he admitted that he had, in fact, published a book that contained the offensive “false opinion.”  He said that, despite the fact that he had presented “arguments of great cogency in its favor,” he settled the matter with the following statement:

I have been pronounced by the Holy Office to be suspected of heresy, of having believed that the Sun is the center of the world and immovable, and that the earth is not the center and moves.  Therefore, … with sincere heart and unfeigned faith I abjure, curse, and detest the aforesaid errors and heresies, and generally every other error, heresy, and sect whatsoever contrary to the said Holy Church, and I swear that in the future I will never again say or assert, verbally or in writing, anything that might furnish occasion for a similar suspicion regarding me; but that should I know any heretic, or person suspected of heresy, I will denounce him to this Holy Office. Further, I swear and promise to fulfill and observe in their integrity all penances that have been, or that shall be, imposed upon me.”

So, that was THAT.   Even in translation from the original Italian, it was a clear denial.

Well, modern scholars have re-examined the events of the time — notably David Hilbert who wrote in his defense of Galileo’s recantation:

“Galileo was no idiot.  Only an idiot could believe that science requires martyrdom.  That may be necessary in religion, but, in time, a scientific result will establish itself.”

Witnesses at this historic session with the Inquisitors reported (quietly, and to a select audience) that, after Galileo saved himself by admitting that the Earth does not move from its place at the center of the universe, rising from his knees to begin his house arrest, he was heard to mumble:

“Eppur si muove — And yet it moves.”

Finally, 359 years later, the Church agreed.  At a ceremony in Rome, Pope John Paul II officially declared that Galileo was right. The formal rehabilitation was based on the findings of a committee the Pope set up in 1979. After a 13-year investigation, they decided that the Inquisition had acted in good faith, but was wrong.  On October 31, 1992, a papal statement appeared in the New York Times:

“We today know that Galileo was right in adopting the Copernican astronomical theory.”

Oh, good for you!

What Did It Mean in 1633?
Was it a confrontation between science and faith?  Historians and analysts over the past four centuries have said “No,” because Galileo never presented his science to the Inquisition.  ‘Science’ wasn’t even present at the trial.  It was about authority, at a time when the Protestant Reformation, at its peak in the 1630s, had questioned the whole notion of legitimate sources of authority. It wasn’t about the content of the science, or even logic; it was about “Who says?”

Little did any of them know, science would eventually have the last word.  While the church insisted that the earth stood motionless at the center of the universe and Galileo reasoned that the Sun stood motionless at the center  — turned out that not only is the Sun not still, everything is swirling around in a giant blender more vast than any of them imagined.  Who knew?

Does It Mean Anything Today? (i.e., my usual “So what?” question)
Some have suggested that a similar “Who says?” argument is being waged today over matters in which science contradicts the sacred interests of today’s prevailing powers.  Those folks argue that today’s arguments matter significantly more than the one that Galileo nimbly sidestepped back in 1633.  Perhaps we’ve learned three things (there are always three): 1) that every age feels that its own struggles matter more than any that have gone before, 2) that such “Who says?” struggles are not likely to end any time soon, and 3) our experience teaches us that the right answer does eventually prevail.  Once again, “the scientific result will establish itself.”  In the meantime, the Sun still rises in the morning, it still does its important work in the vineyards and elsewhere, and it sets every evening, all as it is supposed to do.  Often, though not always, that behavior continues without a lot of trouble for us humans. And for THAT, we may be thankful.

My Thanksgiving Toast Still Stands
The Sun, with all its planets revolving around it and depending upon it,
still can find the time to ripen a bunch of grapes
as if it had nothing else in the universe to do.” — Galileo Galilei

I am thankful to THAT goodness for giving us all that we are and all that we have, especially each other.  So many are not so fortunate and yet we have so much.

Happy Thanksgiving to you and yours!

 

 

 

 

 

The Turkey!

Yosemite: Change Revisited

“It is easier to feel than to realize,
or in any way explain, Yosemite’s grandeur.”
   — John Muir

“What a treasure to pass on . . .
(but make sure you bring your lunch).”
— PapaDan

 

 

Click here to download a PDF of this post:Yosemite, October 17, 2017

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Yosemite, October 17, 2017
Sitting here in the middle of a meadow, looking up at Yosemite’s venerable Ahwahnee Hotel, it seems different in some way.  Since you probably know some of the history of this place, you may ask with raised eyebrow and derision in your voice “Aw-come-on-now, what could possibly be different?” You might point out a few things like: the iconic stone-and-wood edifice in front of me has looked pretty much the same since it opened in 1927; the granite mountain, El Capitan, to the left of this view has looked much the same for, oh, 50,000 years or so; and the squirrels and blue jays who live here have been scurrying and squawking like this since the glacier melted — so, what could possibly be different?

I’ll have think about it — you’ve asked a big question that demands a big answer; but I, of course, have a small answer:

—> It’s quiet.  Nearly silent, actually.  THAT’S what’s different.

Gretta and I come to Yosemite every April, for our anniversary, and one thing is a constant — Yosemite Falls is always flowing with its usual vigor.  The sound is not merely of running water, but of chunks of ice and fragments of logs from the high country crashing down on the rock formations between the peak of the falls and the valley floor.  All of that — plus the constant rushing of the water — creates a polyphonic orchestration complete with percussion, and you can hear it everywhere in Yosemite Valley from Half Dome to El Capitan to Glacier Point.

But, in October (for our second yearly visit), North America’s tallest waterfall is completely dry.
And silent. And, the silence of October is more noticeable than the sound of April.            

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Upper Yosemite Falls (April)      Upper Yosemite Falls (October/Dry/Silent) 

But, before I claim that everything else around here is permanent, I come to realize that much has changed, and is changing all the time.  Some of it matters, and some doesn’t.

The Water
• 
The water that feeds the Merced River from the opposite side of Yosemite Valley, across from Yosemite Falls (see the images below), originates at the granite dome of Liberty Cap, thunders down at Nevada Falls, sits awhile in the Emerald Pool, rumbles down at Vernal Falls, and ends up meandering through the valley floor in the Merced River. As the seasons change, that river trickles between the boulders at its low point here on October and then swells to a wide, white-water torrent in April.  So, at least that much changes; but a wise observer might point out that all of this ebb and flow, the meandering and the raging, the silence and the music of the falls form a never-ending constant cycle in their seemingly eternal alternation between the extremes of life in this valley among these mountains.  Yosemite has been here a very long time — longer than the life-span of humans on this planet — and the forces at work here seem to be eternal; BUT those forces are carving a work of art.  Each time you look, if you are paying attention, it never looks quite the same as it did the last time you looked.

 

 

 

           

 


Nevada Falls                  Top of Vernal Falls/Emerald Pool         Vernal Falls

The Granite
•  Today, El Capitan slopes at a slightly different angle since last month when a slice of granite the size of an apartment building cracked and crashed down on one of its outcroppings and scattered giant boulders, many the size of automobiles, around its base.  Rock falls happen all the time in Yosemite but they are seldom fatal (as this one was) and often not especially noticeable — unless you consider that this entire valley and its surrounding mountains were carved and shaped over thousands of years in precisely this manner.  So, Yosemite changes its shape pretty much everywhere you look and pretty much all the time.

The Colors

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The colors speak for themselves.  BUT, some of us have tried to speak for them — and maybe overdone it in the attempt, or not – like our old friend Mark Twain who tries to give us a glimpse, in words, of trees in the fall that change “from green to red, from red to green, and green to gold. The tree becomes a very explosion of dazzling jewels; it stands there, the acme, the climax, the supremest possibility of art or nature, of bewildering, intoxicating, intolerable magnificence. One cannot make the words too strong.”    Or so he said.

Twain’s words appeared in the New York Times in 1876, not as evidence of change, but as evidence of permanence — describing something that has been repeated every year since long before humans were here to observe it.  And here, now, in Yosemite, we see it once again.

Trivial Change
Now, if we’re going to make a list, some things HAVE changed here in Yosemite, just in the decades we have known it; but those are caused by humans and, therefore, less important:
•  The Ahwahnee Hotel has been renamed The Majestic Yosemite Hotel.  Why? — because the previous management of the hotel claims to “own” the name “Ahwahnee” after a coupla decades of association with it.  The silliness of that view comes to light when you consider that the hotel was named for the Ahwahneechi Tribe who were associated with this part of the valley since about 600 years ago — long before the United States National Park Service granted a contract for restaurants and hotels (OK, long before the United States existed).  So, Gretta and I still call it by its rightful name — The Ahwahnee Hotel.
•  The Ahwahnee cocktail lounge, which used to serve excellent food all day long, now serves, well … OS (i.e., other stuff).  We tried it for breakfast this time … I didn’t know it was possible to screw up yogurt and granola, but now I know.  It has been our habit to enjoy a cocktail and tasty appetizers here in the late afternoon.  The “cocktail” part endures as it should but the “tasty appetizer” notion is missing.  It also used to feature a delightful piano player in the evening (he played everything from classics to smooth jazz to show tunes to classic rock — request almost anything, he knew it).  Now the piano is gone to make room for three more tables and a sound system plays, well … OS.
•  The Ahwahnee main dining room used to be a 5-star restaurant that attracted outstanding chefs.  Now it is just a lovely high-ceilinged, grand building with an OK restaurant surrounded by breath-taking views, pouring from a mediocre wine list, and serving … well, you know, OS.  It isn’t even the best restaurant in this valley.
•  Oh, and there’s Degnan’s Deli, which used to be an ideal spot to interrupt a day of hiking by ordering a hand-made sandwich, salad, or soup, crafted with fresh ingredients.  Now, it is dominated by a display case full of pre-packaged “gas-station-sandwiches.”  And they’ve innovated: you can stand in line to order and pay using computerized kiosks and then stand in another line to pick up your order.  This “innovation” succeeded in eliminating four employees who used to make your lunch to order from fresh ingredients and take your money at enough cash registers to avoid standing in line.  You can still sit at their outdoor stone tables looking up at a stunning view of Glacier Point, but … my recommendation is that you bring your own lunch.  Yes, it’s changed.

So, now I’ll stop whining
and tell you why we must continue to return here twice a year.

We come back for the many wonderful things that remain the same here in Yosemite Valley. Here are a few of those in the words of some of our friends:
•  Words from Teddy Roosevelt: “There can be nothing in the world more beautiful than the Yosemite …  and our people should see to it that [it] is preserved for their children and their children’s children forever, with [its] majestic beauty unmarred.”
•  Words from John Muir: “Climb the mountains and get their good tidings, Nature’s peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees. The winds will blow their own freshness into you and the storms their energy, while cares will drop off like autumn leaves. As age comes on, one source of enjoyment after another is closed, but nature’s sources never fail.
•  John Muir again: “It is easier to feel than to realize, or in any way explain, Yosemite’s grandeur. The magnitudes of the rocks and trees and streams are so delicately harmonized, mostly hidden.”
•  Frightening words of warning from NYT columnist Nicholas Kristof: “I can’t help thinking that if the American West were discovered today, the most glorious bits would be sold off to the highest bidder. Yosemite might be nothing but weekend homes for internet tycoons.”
•  Words from Robert Redford: “I spent two summers working at Camp Curry and at Yosemite Lodge as a waiter. It gave me a chance to really be there every day – to hike up to Vernal Falls or Nevada Falls. It just took me really deep into it. Yosemite claimed me.”
•  Words from Dave Brubeck: “I used to take my mother to Yosemite. When got my driver’s license, that’s where she’d want to go, so I’d go take her there for two weeks.”
•  Words from John Garamendi: “Maybe you weren’t born with a silver spoon in your mouth, but like every American, you carry a deed to 635 million acres of public lands. That’s right. Even if you don’t own a house or the latest computer on the market, you own Yosemite, Yellowstone, the Grand Canyon, Golden Gate National Recreation Area, and many other natural treasures.”
•  Words from Ansel Adams: “Yosemite Valley, to me, is always a sunrise, a glitter of green and golden wonder in a vast edifice of stone and space.”
•  More from John Muir: “During my first years in the Sierra, I was ever calling on everybody within reach to admire them, but I found no one half warm enough until Emerson came. I had read his essays, and felt sure that of all men he would best interpret the sayings of these noble mountains and trees. Nor was my faith weakened when I met him in Yosemite.”

•  And, finally, from PapaDan:  “Some years, one or more of our sons bring their families up here during the same week we visit, and we have the privilege of taking our grandchildren to the bank of the Merced River (below, left) or up to the base of Yosemite falls (below, right) and watch them enjoy the spectacle in amazement. What a treasure to pass on to the next generation!”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

We’ll be back in April!

If you’re interested, click to take a look at a previous post on this topic:
Of Permanence, Change, and a Sense of Wonder

A Gratitude Attitude

“Thank you, God, for this good life and forgive us if we do not love it enough.”
   — Garrison Keillor

“On the off chance
that you won’t live forever,
maybe you should try to be happy now.”
— “Network News” (HBO)

 

Click here to download a PDF of this post:   ConVivio_Gratitude_FINAL_Sept7_2017,pdf

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Let’s admit it — Americans are having quite a lot of anxiety these days. We could list the reasons, but they are in the news every day; and it is not my intention to trouble you with all of that.  I’m thinking that we may have something more useful to do today.  I grew up in a generation that acquired the confidence, or at least the suspicion, that we, collectively, have what it takes to solve difficult problems and improve our lives and the lives of others. We have been taught to believe that we can make a lot of progress — in economics, technology, and society.  I will speak for myself and say that I was taught to believe in that progress by my parents, teachers, and leaders.  For me, that body of belief is summarized in the distinctly 21st-century assertion:

“Yes, we can.”

But, today, we’re not so sure.  Such optimism is feeling more and more like hard work.

That “dampening” of our collective self-confidence seems to have happened in a relatively short time.  I suppose that uncertainty leads me to look back on my education for an alternate strategy.  Just thinking out loud here — I was taught that “despair” was a personal failure.  So, “giving up” was not acceptable.  I was also taught that lashing out in anger against things I don’t like is not what reasonable, thinking, feeling humans should do.  (I was taught that standard by observing what happened to the bully on the fifth-grade playground, when Sister Bernadette hauled him off to the principal’s office when he got too pushy on the tetherball court.)  Also, somewhere in my Jesuit education back in the early 1970s, I recall hearing the saying:

“God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.”

This is part of what is known as “The Serenity Prayer” written by an American theologian named Reinhold Niebuhr back in the 1930s and passed on to me in a lecture by a Jesuit professor, Father Tennant Wright, at Santa Clara University in 1971.  It is typically offered as a prescription for happiness in “the next life” if we accept hardships and trust in God.  My observation, however, — at the urging of that same professor — suggested to me that we have opportunities, and responsibilities, to make a difference in “this life” that should not be ignored.

So, what does it mean?  Is there a way to bridge the gap between “Yes, We Can” and “Serenity?”  Can that “bridge” have some effect on the current anxiety I mentioned?

The Physiology of Gratitude

Really?!   Physiology?  OK, so I stumbled on a chapter in a book called “The Gratitude Diaries,” by Janice Kaplan.  At first glance, as I saw it on the library shelf, I expected it to be mostly about talking yourself out of feeling bad.  But, as I looked into one chapter — you know how you grab a book off the shelf and open it to a random page to see what’s inside — I discovered something else.  On page 179, I found some very mundane and familiar medical science associated with stuff like bacteria, the body’s immune response to bacteria, the functioning of neurotransmitters, and how white blood cells swarm to the site of an infection and attack the problem by “gobbling up bacteria.”  In doing that, the white blood cells leave behind inflammation, which can become dangerous in itself.  You knew that; BUT scientific studies aimed at understanding inflammation have uncovered some unexpected and intriguing connections.

So, here’s the really interesting part — turns out that the immune system doesn’t ONLY respond to “germs,” it may also respond to emotions.  Kaplan reports that a couple of researchers at Johns Hopkins University and Georgetown’s National Institute of Mental Health observed that worry, anger, or fear activates those same white blood cells.  Even though they don’t have anything specific to attack, they leave a trail of dangerous systemic inflammation.
–> Long-story-short — one conclusion from their studies: expressing gratitude could actually inhibit that systemic inflammation effect and prevent our immune systems from causing our bodies to react harmfully to fear and worry.

“A sad soul can kill you quicker, far quicker, than a germ.” — John Steinbeck

SO, the anxiety many of us are feeling about the bad news all around us can actually do physiological damage and inhibit our ability to cope with the world, to make good decisions, and to experience happiness.  People are beginning to notice.  Friends of mine tell me that they have been trying to avoid watching “the news” because they don’t like the way it makes them feel.  Turns out that the intentional expression of gratitude for the goodness we see around us and the people who bring it to us — in place of focusing on the troubling news — can demonstrably counteract those very real effects on our health.  The operative word for this effect is healing.

The Gift of a ‘Gratitude Attitude’

Let’s admit it — we have much to be grateful for.  The very fact that today’s news is disappointing confirms that we have experienced better; we have been exposed to good people doing generous and kind things for us and for others, both locally and elsewhere.  We have enjoyed periods of relative stability and we have survived hard times, both individually and collectively.  While we have endured troublesome people (you know who they are), we have also enjoyed people who have lifted us up and brought us kindness when it was needed (and you know who they are).  In fact, there have been times when WE have BEEN those people for others.  Science tells us that there are positive physiological effects of intentional gratitude; AND we have seen that serving as an example of gratitude to others can make a difference for us all.

“At times our own light goes out and is rekindled by a spark from another person. Each of us has cause to think with deep gratitude of those who have lighted the flame within us.”
— Albert Schweitzer

Heck, some of you have done that for me — and you know who you are — so, thank you.

Obligations?

So, if we acknowledge that focusing on “the bad news” can do real harm, does that knowledge carry with it obligations to each other — and to those who come after us?

If future generations are to remember us more with gratitude than sorrow, we must achieve more than just the miracles of technology. We must also leave them a glimpse of the world as it was created, not just as it looked when we got through with it.
— Lyndon B. Johnson

I have to acknowledge that my generation brought us to the “bad news” state we are in.  Some might suggest that this conundrum — the apparent tension between “Yes, We Can” and “Serenity” — strains our impulse to resist the “bad news,” and by resisting, risk allowing that resistance to dominate our daily lives.  Shouldn’t we resist?  Isn’t that part of the “Yes, We Can” confidence we were taught to have?

Let me suggest that it is not a cop-out to say we must do both — simultaneously.  I agree with the urgency of resistance — staying informed of the paths our nation is traveling, putting ourselves in a position to make a difference, contributing to organizations that can help those who are harmed by the “bad news,” and supporting those who want to push progress forward (yes, we call them “progressives”).  At the same time, the science suggests that we must support each other by offering our “Gratitude Attitude” wherever we can.  I must remind myself, in spite of my disappointment with “the bad news,” that I have a good home in a good community, a family full of successful and talented grown children and smart and curious grandchildren, and a wife who shares my gratitude and appreciates “us.”  I have friends who demonstrate their gratitude for the goodness they have and for the time we spend together.  I enjoy hearing their expressions of gratitude for their own good lives.  I submit that we have an obligation to share our expressions of gratitude with the people in our lives — the people we know well and those we meet along the way.  They need to hear our gratitude just as much as we need to hear theirs.  OK, it’s hard to do both things at once — to “resist” while also maintaining a “gratitude attitude.”  But we must, because …

 “Yes, we can.”

Unexpected Wisdom

 

 

“It is important to make plans for the future,
as long as you are prepared to change them
when the future comes.”

            — Albert J. Sapone, 1970

 

Click here to download a PDF of this post:
63-Unexpected_Wisdom_August 3_2017

 

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This cartoon first appeared August 6, 1972 — Charles Schultz

When I cut this cartoon out of the San Francisco Chronicle on August 6, 1972, the world I knew was changing dramatically.  Two months before, I had graduated from Santa Clara University with my double major in English Literature and Philosophy. Less than a week before it appeared, Woodard and Bernstein published their first in a series of New York Times reports about a “third-rate burglary” that would lead to Richard Nixon’s resignation two years later.  The week the cartoon appeared, I was hired into my first professional job.  And that summer, for the second year in a row, no record albums were released by a band called “The Beatles.”  All were milestones of change that felt dramatic and disorienting, or at least a bit uncomfortable; but looking back, they were really just inevitable extensions of what had gone before — just like the scene in the Peanuts cartoon.

So, aren’t these the kinds of things every generation experiences — when the conditions of stability we had learned to expect, no longer seem to apply?  Kinda universal experiences, aren’t they?  Yet, I suspect that each one of us felt — and feels — that our own experience with discomforting change is more or less unique to us.  Does Charlie Brown’s warning matter?  What does it mean?  Here’s where I ask my “So what?” question.

I do remember the security of sitting in the back seat — my parents took me to the Drive-In movies from time to time.  I’m pretty sure I saw the “Ten Commandments” with Charlton Heston at the Bridgehead Drive-In, in the back seat of my parent’s 1956 Oldsmobile.; I remember eating popcorn, drinking Coca Cola, and having the option of lying down if I got tired or bored (which I’m pretty sure did — I was six years old).  I don’t remember noticing, or regretting when that practice went away.  In the cartoon, Charlie Brown shows some remarkable prescience to be able to report to Peppermint Patty that those days of “security” would end.  Nobody warned me, so I guess I didn’t notice.  Did anybody warn you?  What do you remember?

I suppose starting a new school — especially high school — was a big transition, but my memories of those transitions are positive.  I was good at school and it wasn’t intimidating. Going away to college was a bigger challenge.  But, it wasn’t the “college” part; it was the “going away” part that was disorienting.

While graduating was a triumph, it did carry some anxiety. Not the graduating part — my Dad had told me early and often that I was going to be the first in my family to graduate from college whether I wanted to or not.  That part was expected; and I had no reason to doubt it. But one aspect of it was a deviation from long-held expectations. My Dad had hoped that I would graduate with a degree in business (I arrived as an Economics major) so I could take my place in the insurance business and he could hang an ”And Son” sign under the “A.J. Sapone Insurance” sign out in front of his office.  BUT … during my sophomore year, I came to realize that studying business didn’t generate the kind of excitement in me that Literature and Philosophy did. I wanted to change my major, but before I could do that — and study words and ideas instead of dollars and cents —  I figured there was a hurdle I had to overcome …
I went home for the summer and told my Dad all about literature, music, and philosophy and why I thought it all mattered so much.  Then, I took a deep breath and told him that I didn’t want to be an insurance agent. I told him maybe I could become a teacher or a writer.  I expected to have an argument on my hands, since the “And Son” story had been his dream; and I expected, frankly, to lose that argument.  My Dad hadn’t finished the 8th grade and his struggle to make it had been impressive.  He had told me all my life that I needed to get an education so I wouldn’t have to struggle.  He had been proud to provide that ”back seat” of security for me as I grew up.  I didn’t think he’d appreciate my interest in Shakespeare, Bach, and Heidegger. But, as great teachers often do, he surprised me.  After a moment, he said (as if he had rehearsed it):

“It is important to make plans for the future;
as long as you are prepared to change them when the future comes.”

Then he said, “So tell me more about that Heidegger guy.”

Now, fast forward two years to 1972 — graduating with this particular degree, without an obvious “next thing” waiting for me, was a little like Charlie Brown‘s face in the cartoon …

 

 

The future was all up to me, for the most part,
and the rest of the world had no responsibility to make it work out all right.
The days of sitting in the back seat of my parent’s ’56 Oldsmobile
were long gone.

 

 

So, being out in the world was an adventure; but it was “the ‘70s” and I do remember being told — in movies and popular music —  that it was supposed to be an adventure.
I liked Helen Keller’s line:  …

“Security is mostly a superstition. It does not exist in nature,
nor do the children of men as a whole experience it.
Avoiding danger is no safer in the long run than outright exposure.
Life is either a daring adventure, or nothing.” — Helen Keller

As scary as it was, the adventure turned out all right.  A teaching job materialized when I needed it, followed by a long career as a writer and editor.  That was, frankly, the easy part.  Today, the world is still changing dramatically, just as it was in 1972.  The disarray of politics and the evolution of our musical heroes will continue to be part of that adventure for a long time.  Heck, we are even likely to survive the adventure our government is providing today, as scary as it seems — AND, yes, Paul McCartney is still making music.

And Now, “So What?”

For me, and for many of you, the REAL challenge came with the arrival of children.  Providing a “back seat” for my own young children “to fall asleep in” was clearly my responsibility.  I came to realize that the great challenge of modern life may not be so much the fear that Charlie Brown and Peppermint Patty felt as they looked ahead to an uncertain future — they didn’t know it, but they would overcome it all just fine in their own good time.  The challenge resided in the characters that we never met in Charles Schutz’ comic strip — the parents.  That challenge in my own story rested with my Dad.  At that time, he could have derailed my plans; he could have insisted that I complete my degree in the school of business and fulfill his “And Son” dream
— he was, after all, paying the bills.  His wisdom was to give me permission to pursue the “daring adventure” that Hellen Keller spoke of.  He had to take the risk that I could succeed going my own way.  For that, I thank him today.

Recently, in a conversation with my son Matt about raising children (as he and his brothers are doing so well), he reminded me of something I quoted to him years ago from a book I read (“How To Father,” by Fitzhugh Dodson).  The book asked, what is it that children, whether they know it or not, want most from their parents while they are growing up?  The answer:
“Risk with me while I’m trying on selves.”

Risk with me while I’m trying on selves.”

I didn’t see that in the comic strip all those years ago; but today, as I look with admiration at children and grandchildren, just like those in the cartoon, I see that as the enduring message.  

America’s Great Anniversary Festival

 

It ought to be solemnized with Pomp
and Parade, with Shows, Games, Sports,
Guns, Bells, Bonfires and Illuminations
from one End of this Continent to the other from this Time forward forever more.”

      — John Adams, July 3, 1776

 

 

Click here to download a PDF of this post: The_Fourth_2017

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From a letter from John Adams to Abigail Adams, July 3, 1776

“The Second Day of July 1776, will be the most memorable Epocha, in the History of America. … I am apt to believe that it will be celebrated, by succeeding Generations, as the great anniversary Festival. It ought to be commemorated, as the Day of Deliverance by solemn Acts of Devotion to God Almighty. It ought to be solemnized with Pomp and Parade, with Shows, Games, Sports, Guns, Bells, Bonfires and Illuminations from one End of this Continent to the other from this Time forward forever more.  …You will think me transported with Enthusiasm but I am not. — I am well aware of the Toil and Blood and Treasure, that it will cost Us to maintain this Declaration, and support and defend these States. Yet through all the Gloom I can see the Rays of ravishing Light and Glory. I can see that the End is more than worth all the Means. And that Posterity will tryumph in that Days Transaction, even altho We should rue it, which I trust in God we shall not.”


OK, so John got it sorta wrong.  He figured that America’s “Great Anniversary Festival” should be celebrated on July 2nd, the day the unanimous vote was taken in the Second Continental Congress in Philadelphia.  But, since July 4th was the day the Declaration of Independence was printed, distributed, and read on street corners throughout the colonies, and, well, that was the date at the top of the paper, so  …  here we are.

Happy Fourth of July!

And there’s the famous John Trumbull painting of the ceremony in which the members of the Second Continental Congress signed the declaration on July 4th –> nope, that didn’t happen either.  Most members signed the paper on August 2nd at the Pennsylvania State House.  Some signed on other dates.  The New York delegation was given permission to sign the document by their legislature on July 15th (since NY had abstained on July 2nd).  Some signers hadn’t been elected to Congress yet in July.

 

But, OK, the document we have today (a copy is framed over my workbench) has 56 signatures and it’s dated July 4, 1776.  Done and done. A result, at least, of some powerful storytelling.

Happy Fourth of July!

Today, July 4, 2017, we celebrate what has been called “The Great Experiment in Democracy on the North American Continent.” We’ve been working at this experiment for 241 years and it
has required a tremendous amount of sacrifice and quite a lot of very serious compromises,
some we can be proud of, some not so much.
The signers of the document, rich, white, male property owners (many slave owners) with much to lose, pledged to support the declaration with “our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor.” The late eloquent American journalist Paul Harvey (Presidential Medal of Freedom, 2009), tells the stories of what those signers had to do to support that pledge. Give it a look; much of it is true and all of it is moving.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SRSHA7F3mIw

———————

So, how’re we doin’?

America had a population of 2.5 million in 1776 — today we number about 326 million — and each of us has a role to play.  The challenge of representative democracy as it has come down to the latest generation of Americans has required an evolving recipe of leadership and followership.  We expect our leaders to represent us well on national and international stages; we judge them every day on their ability to make us proud, keep us safe, and promote the values we claim to believe in.  We, in turn, ask each other to support those values as we exercise what the Declaration of Independence enshrined as our “inalienable rights”: “Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.”  Our common expectation, or hope, is that we will find ways to pursue those inalienable rights without stepping on the rights of others; AND we agree that our government will protect the ability of each of us to exercise those rights — or at least not stand in our way.

So, what do we do if we find ourselves disappointed with the outcome of those agreements
– disappointed with the “great experiment in Democracy” on this continent, in our town, in our neighborhood?  And, let’s be frank, we often — often — find ourselves disappointed in our leaders, our fellow citizens, and at times, perhaps, even our own contributions to that agreement. What do we do?  What should we do?  What is expected of us when we expect more?  Truth is, few of us will be required to give what the signers of the declaration had to give, as Paul Harvey described; some will, but relatively few. What is our responsibility when we decide that our leaders do not represent our values and ourselves the way we expect?  Is it sufficient to carry signs in crowds that express our disapproval?  I think most of us believe that more is expected. After all, we’ve got it pretty good, most of us.  What’s the line in the book — “Of those to whom much is given, much is expected.”  Does the legacy passed on to us by our, largely immigrant, forebears require some effort to carry on the values that were passed on to us?

The closer we look at our history — as we do when we watch the musical play “Hamilton” or “1776” on our theater stages — we find that the founders were, for the most part, fairly ordinary, imperfect people.  Not granite statues.  Sort of like the rest of us but, perhaps with greater ambition and maybe some particular talents that got them into positions of responsibility.  Maybe they did something when they saw a need.  Maybe their motives were good, maybe not.  Many of us decide: “I think I can find ways to contribute, but they don’t seem sufficient.”  For many, on both sides of a number of challenges that we face, we want something to change.  I don’t have the wisdom or talent of those who have risen to positions of leadership over our lifetime; but I can recognize some of that wisdom when I see it.  I recall many words of wisdom that have been passed down to me — all the way from “nothing to fear …” to “ask not …” to “ask why not,” but, for today, these come to mind: “we must be the change we seek.”

So, here we are.  How do we “become the change …” ?   I’m not sure any of us can make it happen by ourselves.  In honor of “America’s anniversary festival,” we’ve got to figure it out together.  Time’s a wastin’ …

For further reading:  https://www.nytimes.com/2017/06/30/opinion/fourth-of-july-stephen-fry.html

King Arthur for 2017

Tell the story
“Don’t let it be forgot”
— Arthur

      …

Yet some men say
in many parts of England
that King Arthur is not dead
.”
— Sir Thomas Mallory
(of Warwick?)


—————–——–

Click here to download a PDF of this article: ConVivio_Arthur_May11_2017


In dark times, we humans tend to seek assistance from some form of intervention — perhaps a knight on a horse — to save us from dangers we can’t overcome on our own.  History is full of examples; and my favorite example is the legend of King Arthur.  At its core, the Arthurian legend promises that British greatness is secure as long as its royal heritage endures.  Several ancient sources contain the prophecy that the ‘Rightful King’ would reveal himself by pulling an enchanted sword, named Excalibur, from a stone.  In those stories, the sword had been embedded in that stone under a spell that awaited a person with enough moral courage and wisdom (and, of course, physical strength) to remove the sword and save his people at a time of great danger.  In our most enduring source of Arthurian legend, Le Morte d’Artur (1485), Sir Thomas Mallory tells us: “Whoso pulleth out this sword of this stone, is rightwise king born of all England.”  When that ‘Rightful King’ shows up to remove the sword he would lead his people to victory.  Arthur arrived on the scene to fulfill that prophecy.  Presumably, all of Britain’s history follows from that moment. For centuries, many storytellers have taken up the legend — recently Alfred Tennyson in Idylls of the King (in the 1860s), T.H. White in his popular book The Once and Future King (1958), and, of course, the Broadway musical Camelot by Lerner and Loewe (1960).

Most of the stories come to us from the 12th thru 15th centuries, with tales of chivalry, Knights of the Round Table, and a famous Camelot love triangle involving Arthur, Guinevere, and Lancelet; but the real, historical Arthur arrived on the scene to remove the sword and save his comrades at the Battle of Camlann in 560 AD.  In that battle, Arthur, with the help of Excalibur, killed their enemy, Mordred, to achieve victory.  Unfortunately, accounts from that time record that Arthur was mortally wounded in that battle and was taken to the Isle of Avalon to die.  Historically, most believe that he was buried in the churchyard at Glastonbury Abbey (below).

 

BUT   Arthur’s story doesn’t end there.  Mallory continues: “Yet some men say in many parts of England that King Arthur is not dead, but had by the will of our Lord Jesu into another place; and men say that he shall come again, and he shall win the holy cross. I will not say it shall be so, but rather I will say: here in this world he changed his life.”  The legend provides further reassurance — we are told with the particular certainty of such powerful legends, that Arthur still waits at the Isle of Avalon (now known as Glastonbury Tor) for the day when his particular combination of greatness, goodness, and magic will be needed to save Britain again from great danger.  Now, partial disclosure, I have visited Glastonbury Tor here in the 21st century, walked its full extent (below, that’s me on the path on the left), and I must report that I did not see him there.  But, the legend has endured long enough and forcefully enough to suggest that I must have missed him.  And, as you can see, there’s magic afoot; so, we can be confident.

Glastonbury Tor, 2003

So, the legend endures. (And it’s a better story, no?)

Over the centuries since that day, Britain has survived a long list of well-documented threats;
—>   —>  BUT today, the time for his return has clearly arrived.

Without Arthur’s intervention, an election scheduled for June 8 may be a defining ‘point-of-no-return’ of Britain’s planned separation from the rest of Europe with disastrous results for the British economy and the stability of Europe and the West.  The entire arc of history enfolding from the 5th to the 21st centuries has been a constant struggle to unify Europe under progressive values, new ideas that promise to provide stability.  That struggle has continued through an alternating series of triumphs and setbacks over sixteen centuries of powerful obstacles, destructive wars, expansions of a vast empire, contractions back to a single small country, demonstrably less worthy kings, tasteless food, a few embarrassing prime ministers (most since Churchill), and one worthless one (the current one).  Arguably, the establishment of the European Union (EU) in 1993 was the greatest single step in the progress from Arthur’s Round Table, as told to us by Sir Tom of Warwick (Thomas Mallory?) to our present day.  If this election were to go the “wrong” way, and Britain shrinks from the responsibilities of its destiny, neither Britain nor the European Union are certain to recover from such a setback. The British people will need all of the wisdom and courage that Arthur, the “Once and Future King,” can provide to step back from the Brexit cliff.

The time has come, Arthur, to return and fulfill your destiny.  The world still waits.  I’m sure you are ready and waiting somewhere on that hill in Glastonbury.  Time is running out.

Or, maybe there is another way to think about this  …

On the eve of battle, according to one version of the story, Arthur gave a gift to the future (i.e., us).  Mindful that the battle was not certain to go well, that he might not survive and his Round Table could die with him, he was startled by a young boy who had come to fight in the battle. The boy told Arthur that he wanted to fight to preserve the values of the Round Table.  The dejected King, feeling that his life’s work was about to come to nothing, was skeptical, and asked him how he could possibly know about the Round Table.  The boy told him, “from stories people tell — stories about might for right, right for right, justice for all, a round table where all the knights would sit.

Arthur was encouraged and, using Excalibur, knighted the boy, Tom of Warwick, and gave him some direct orders:
You will not fight in the battle, you will run behind the lines and hide until the battle is over; you will return home to Warwick — ALIVE!  You will grow up and grow old.  For as long as you live, will you remember what I, your King, tell you and do as I command?

Yes, my Lord.”

Arthur then commands him to “tell the story” of the values of the kingdom he had hoped to create.  (Click on the link to hear Arthur tell the story himself.)  As the newly knighted Tom of Warwick leaves to fulfill his orders, Arthur’s optimism is revived that “We will be remembered” and THAT would be his victory.

So, perhaps between now and June 8, the story must be told, “strong and clear,” again and again, that Britain has an important role to play in the future of Europe and in preserving the values for which it was founded.  Maybe the story can tip the balance, even if Arthur himself does not emerge from Glastonbury Tor with his sword to save Britain from itself.  Maybe the telling of the story is all that is needed. If the guys with swords let us down, let’s put our faith in the storytellers.

And Yet, Optimists Speak

—————–
“In case you thought
optimism was dead,
the average pencil
is seven inches long
with just a half-inch eraser.”
— Robert Brault
—————–
—————–
—————–
—————–

 


Spoiler alert —–>  Yes, it turns out that I am an optimist.  Honest.  Really.  Maybe you are, too?

These days, such a label often elicits an insulting response, such as “How can you be an optimist? Aren’t you paying attention?  Everything is going to hell in a handbasket.  Just open the newspaper any day of the week.”  Or “Anyone with experience knows better than to expect the future to be better than today.”  Or “Right, an optimist, but I bet you look both ways before you cross the street, don’t you?”

My father was an optimist and I acquired that attribute from him.  In fact, believe it or not, when he was an insurance agent back in the 1950s, he was actually the president of a club of other businessmen in town, called “The Optimists Club.”  They had an “Optimist’s Creed,” which they recited at meetings.  (Yes, they actually had meetings.)  He was an optimist in earnest.  As a successful businessman who had not completed the eighth grade and was the son of an illiterate immigrant, it was actually part of his experience to expect positive surprises.

The Optimist Creed was in a frame on the wall
in my Dad’s office

<– <– <– — it looked like this

Why do I remember this?  Back in the late
1950s, my Dad kept his office open until noon
on Saturdays; and sometimes he took me to
the office with him. I’d sit in the back of the
office and jam up the adding machine. (I think
I was supposed to be watching him in action
and developing an appreciation for the
insurance business.  His plan was to hang a
sign outside that would say “And Son” and I
would one day take over the business.)  But,
my actual accomplishment was to jam up the
adding machine.  But I digress  … why did I
bring this up?  Oh yes …

A friend of his, Jerry Bassett, also a member of the Optimist Club, had a call-in talk show on the local radio station (KKIS in Pittsburg, CA).  On those Saturday mornings, the show was playing on the radio in the office.  One day, Jerry wasn’t getting enough callers; so, he called my Dad during a commercial and told him “I’m dying here, Al.  Can you call me up with something interesting to talk about?  Whuhduhyuhsay?”  So, my Dad took the framed “Optimist Creed” off the wall and called him back.

I was stunned.  There was my Dad, sitting at his desk, telling Jerry Bassett about the Optimist Club and why it meant so much to him.  He actually read the Optimist Creed over the phone and I sat there and listened to my Dad on the radio — with the confusing five-second delay —  talking about what it meant to him to be an optimist.  Apparently, others called in and wanted to talk about it; so, I guess it sorta saved the show for Mr. Bassett.

For me, a ten-year-old sitting in my Dad’s office on a few Saturday mornings, while I didn’t acquire an interest in the insurance business, I did develop an appreciation for the idea of being an optimist — just by watching, listening, and observing how people responded to him.

I learned over time from my Dad and from my own observation, that being an optimist meant a number of different things to him and to others. As I read the news and listen to what people say about it all, I grant you that it requires some effort to be optimistic these days (I’m sure I don’t have to tell you that); but it seems that many of us have different views of what that might mean.  So, let’s explore some of the different meanings people attribute to optimism — borrowing some words from a few others — and then, let’s try to figure out what it might mean to us to be an optimist today.

Let’s ask around.  It seems there are different kinds of optimists.

The Delusional Optimist
This is a guy who falls out of the top floor of a ten-story building. As he passes the floors on his way down (the ninth, then the eighth, the seventh, etc), he says to people on those floors as he flies by on his way down: I’m doin’ OK so far.

This is the optimism that gets the most disdain from “realists” who are paying attention to the news (maybe you and me).  This delusional optimist doesn’t get a lot of respect.  He’s just wrong.  In reaction to this rosy view of a harsh world, some pessimists call themselves realists and seek comfort by lowering their expectations:

The ‘Optimism’ of Lowered Expectations
“A pessimist? That’s a person who has been intimately acquainted with an optimist.”
— Elbert Hubbard

Some of us go to great lengths to avoid being called a fool. A pessimist makes clear that the world can be a bad place for real people; and asserts that a fool is someone who thinks it can be otherwise.  Others, like Winnie-the-Pooh’s friend Eeyore, try to solve the problem by keeping their expectations low:

“It’s snowing still,” said Eeyore gloomily.
“So it is.”
“And freezing.”
“Is it?”
“Yes,” said Eeyore. “However,” he said, brightening up a little, “we haven’t had an earthquake lately.”
― A.A. Milne

The Patient Optimist: Two versions
“Everything will be okay in the end.  If it is not okay; it is not the end.”

— John Lennon   (I bet you thought somebody else said that first, didn’t you?)

This is the classic belief that, at some time in the future, something better will happen if you just wait for it.

Lin-Manuel Miranda portrays Aaron Burr as a different kind of patient optimist in ”Hamilton, the Musical.”  Burr and Alexander Hamilton are both orphans who have an opportunity to impact history. Burr waits cautiously for the chance to fulfill his destiny in a very tough world and resents Hamilton’s more confident approach. He sings to the audience, “Wait For It” (click here to hear the entire song):

Life doesn’t discriminate between the sinners and the saints,
it takes and it takes and it takes
We rise and we keep living anyway, we rise and we fall and we break
We fall and we make our mistakes.
and if there’s a reason I’m still alive when so many have died,
then I’m willin’ to-
Wait for it …
Wait for it …

In the same show, Hamilton — expecting much more than waiting, says to Burr  …

If you dont stand for something, Burr, what will you fall for?
―  Lin-Manual Miranda

Hamilton doesn’t respect those who are reluctant to risk making a commitment to something greater than themselves — a criticism he leveled at Aaron Burr, early in their fatal “rivalry.”  Burr, wary of commitment, was held back by a feeling that ‘making a difference’ might be futile — or dangerous.  In our own time, this very year, some of us fear that the prospects for a positive future are so bleak that there is no point in trying and the challenges we face are too big for us to make a difference.  But there are optimists among us who remind us that it is too early to give up and we are pretty useless if we do:

The Resigned Optimist (aka the “No Other Choice” optimist)
For myself I am an optimist. It does not seem to be much use to be anything else.
Winston S. Churchill

And then, some among us feel that we all have some responsibilities to those who will come after us:

The Burdened Optimist (aka “The Future has its eyes on you”)
There is some good in this world, and it’s worth fighting for.
J.R.R. Tolkien

The future belongs to those who give the next generation reason for hope.
Pierre Teilhard de Chardin

And then, some take that responsibility deeper, especially during difficult times (like war):

Lest I keep my complacent ways, I must remember somewhere out there a person died for me today. As long as there must be war, I ask and I must answer was I worth dying for?’ ”  Eleanor Roosevelt

Ouch.  Eleanor insists that we need to be worthy of the sacrifices others made for us.  That brings us back to the need for a plan to make something better and the need to follow through with that plan.  Optimism, of this variety, requires action since positive change doesn’t happen by itself.  So, in order to avoid being called a fool, a person would have to make something better. You can’t just wait for it.  So, this optimist must be bold and forceful, like this guy:

The Determined Optimist (aka “Just try and stop me”)
My optimism wears heavy boots and is loud.”
Henry Rollins

The determined optimist has to make a show of it and get some attention.  But then, that begs the question: ‘What are you actually going to DO to justify all of that stomping around?  What are you going to accomplish?” What is worth the risk of being disappointed or being called a fool?  From time to time, this brand of optimism can be sufficient, but not always.  Some simply take a practical approach and compare optimism to a fruitless alternative:

The Confident Optimist (aka “Look, we know how to do this”)
Pessimists are usually right and optimists are usually wrong but all the great changes have been accomplished by optimists.
Thomas L. Friedman

So, the need to accomplish something rears its (ugly/beautiful) head:

One thing we know beyond all doubt: Nothing has ever been achieved by the person who says, It cant be done.Eleanor Roosevelt, You Learn by Living

BE the change you wish to see in the world.  Mahatma Ghandi

Like Eleanor and Mahatma, some notable optimists in our own time insist that despair is not helpful and we need to take responsibility to encourage others. You know this guy:

 The only thing thats the end of the world is the end of the world.
Yes, we can.” 
Barack Obama

Not all of us are going to run for office, speak to an audience of millions, and change the world. For many of us it may have to be enough to serve as a good example to encourage others — our children, their children, people we meet — to BE the change that is required.  Maybe all it takes is a few words of encouragement to younger minds — maybe words like “Yes, we can.” It turns out that some outcomes are possible even if we haven’t seen them before.

The “Who’s Going To Stop Me” Optimist (aka “What do you mean it can’t be done?”)
“Sometimes you have to pass through the fire swamp to get where you need to go.”
“But, we’ll never survive.”
“Nonsense.  You’re just saying that because no one ever has.”
William Goldman, The Princess Bride

Is it often difficult to distinguish the “Delusional Optimist” (you remember, the guy falling out of the building) from the “Who’s Going to Stop Me” optimist, but the difference matters. Many optimists are occasionally intimidated by the enormity of great challenges — finding that important things seem to require great effort, by a great many people.  But some wise people suggest the opposite approach: taking small steps in the company of just a few people:

The “Incremental” Optimist
“The secret of getting ahead is getting started. The secret of getting started is breaking your complex overwhelming tasks into small manageable tasks, and starting on the first one.” — Mark Twain

“A year from now you will wish you had started today.” -Karen Lamb

 “A small group of thoughtful people could change the world. Indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” – Margaret Mead

Thou hast seen nothing yet.— Don Quixote de la Mancha (Cervantes)

It turns out that some outcomes are possible even if we haven’t seen them before. Some look at the mixed advice we hear and get discouraged by disappointing outcomes — but some don’t.

The “Maybe this time” Optimist
One thing seems essential — that we do not settle into the extremes of “always” and “never” — that we find an optimism based on the idea that, sometimes, good outcomes are possible.  Sometimes.  This poem by Sheenagh Pugh reminds me that, whichever variety of optimist I decide to be, on a particular day, there is reason to believe in positive outcomes.  They don’t happen by themselves, they do require our efforts, but they happen … sometimes.

And that may be enough.   I may be this kind of optimist …

Sometimes 

Sometimes things don’t go, after all,
from bad to worse.  Some years, muscadel
faces down frost; green thrives; the crops don’t fail;
sometimes a man aims high, and all goes well.

A people sometimes will step back from war;
elect an honest man; decide they care
enough that they can’t leave some stranger poor.
Some men become what they were born for.

Sometimes our best efforts do not go
amiss; sometimes we do as we meant to.
The sun will sometimes melt a field of sorrow
that seemed hard frozen: may it happen for you.
— by Sheenagh Pugh

Sorting Out the Voices
So, what have I learned from all of these voices?  My Dad taught me about “sometimes” as his Dad taught him.  The other side of “sometimes” is that sometimes we need to stomp around and be “The Determined Optimist,” and march in the street with other determined optimists.  Sometimes the best we can be is “The Resigned Optimist” and simply try not to give up.  Sometimes we are forced to be “The Patient Optimist and “Wait for It.”  Sometimes we can see a middle path and serve as a “Confident Optimist” and contribute to incremental change by contributing to organizations that can accomplish important changes with lots of small donations (examples: organizations like the ACLU, Planned Parenthood, PBS, The Yosemite Conservancy, Meals On Wheels, your local library … you probably have your own list.)  Those among us with more imagination and determination may find ways to “Be the change we seek.”  Perhaps our task, if we can’t BE one of them, is to support those who do.

                         

Click here to download a PDF of this article:       Optimist_ConVivio_April14

A Guy Walks Into a Bar

 Sandburg— “You teach yourselves the law
but I train your minds.
You come in here with a head full of mush,
and you leave thinking like a lawyer.
But … it may not be enough.”

                  — Professor Charles W. Kingsfield
from “The Paper Chase”
(a movie set at Harvard Law School in 1973)
 Sandburg
+++++++
+++++++


Walking down Massachusetts Avenue, on his way back to his fraternity, a first-year law student found himself in the middle of an unexpected downpour without an umbrella.  As luck would have it, he was passing a popular watering hole frequented by Harvard Law students and professors.  From habit, he mentally acknowledged the weird fact that The Grafton Street Pub & Grille was actually on Massachusetts Avenue; but it was forgiven for its convenient location right beside Harvard Square.  Gratefully, he ducked into the dark, leather-appointed bar, since he was clearly unprepared for the inclement conditions outside.  He calculated that the storm was likely to continue for just as long as it would take to sit down at the bar with a class of “Maker’s Mark,” and he could be on his way once conditions had improved.  Not a bad way to pass the middle of an otherwise worthless afternoon.

Apparently, others had the same idea — the place was packed.  In fact, there was just one empty barstool, at the end of the bar next to an older well-dressed gentleman — probably a professor, he reasoned.  So, he took his place, and signaled to the barkeep: “Makers’ Mark neat, please.”

As the drink arrived with a bowl of nuts, the gentleman to his left cast a sidelong glance at him without turning his head, “I see you were unprepared for the forecast.”

“Well, I didn’t think  …”

“So I surmised,” he said without letting him finish.

“Well, sure, uh, cheers  … sir.”  He figured he might as well pass the time with some idle conversation.  The guy seemed rude but harmless. Start with flattery.  “I haven’t seen you in here before.  Are you a visiting professor?”

“Visiting?  I suppose one could say that.  I’ve been away a very long time.”

“My name is Hart.  Kevin Hart.”  He extended his hand, a courtesy that was not returned. Maybe he didn’t notice, he thought.  “Where have you been so long?”

“Well, young man … “ and he finally turned to look at him directly. “I don’t suppose you’ve read any Dante.”

“The Inferno?”

Il Purgatorio.  On my way up and out, hopefully, but it seems I need to pass through here first.  Unfinished business, perhaps.”

Kevin didn’t quite know what to make of this. He decided to humor him.  No need to be rude; and who knows, he may find himself in this fellow’s classroom one day.  “What do you teach?”

“Contracts.  Or so I did at one time.  Clearly with less success than I had hoped.”

“I had Professor Warren for Contracts.  Pretty straightforward, I thought.  You say, ’With less success’ than you had hoped … Why do say that?”

“Leaving the impression of ‘pretty straightforward’ doesn’t speak well for a course of that complexity; but I have to say that the evidence suggests that I didn’t do much better.  As far as I can see, the notion of ‘Contracts’ hasn’t been well-assimilated in this society.  I suppose Harvard Law, AND I, have some responsibility for that failure.”

“Well, [defensively] it seems that Harvard Law has made some significant contributions, wouldn’t you say?  I mean, a number of Presidents have come from here. That would seem to suggest at least some success.  Obama came from here, as did both Roosevelts and Kennedy … ”

“And both Adams’,” [he makes a face], George W. Bush [sighs loudly and takes a deep drink of his whiskey], Rutherford B. Hayes [his eyes roll]  …  but I’m quite sure that isn’t the ideal figure-of-merit for an institution that purports to make a difference in society.  There are elements of the law — especially contract law — that seem to have fallen into disrepair of late.  Not sure Harvard Law, or any educational institution up and down the spectrum, can be proud of that.”

“Well, I feel the need to speak up for my school, I think I am receiving a quality education, yes, in Contracts, and other areas.

“Go ahead.  [For just the second time, he turns to look at Kevin directly.]  Defend your school.  Tell me about Contracts.”

Now he’s on the spot … it feels like an oral exam. He waves to the bartender and points at the two empty glasses on the bar to order another round.  He begins. “Written contracts are perhaps the most forceful self-managing tools in our society.  We have well-established norms that are clearly enforceable and fairly efficiently litigated.  Binding contracts between known entities, signed and witnessed, are  … “ [He’s interrupted.]

“Let me ask you, Mister, uh  …” [gestures his question as the second round of whiskeys arrives]

“Hart.  Kevin Hart.” [Deflated a bit, he was just getting started.]

“Mister Hart.  As you teach yourself the law, as ‘straightforward’ as you say it is, perhaps there are questions worth exploring that you, and others of recent generations, may have overlooked.  Examples: Are contracts binding only on those present for, as you say, the ‘signing and witnessing?’  Must the specifics of societal agreements be written on a piece of paper?  Are there responsibilities by which one generation, for example, should be held accountable to another generation?  Are there values, principles, and expectations that should provide continuity and social identity in a society over time?”

In a familiar professorial speech pattern, he doesn’t wait for an answer. “I argue that there are standards of acceptable logic and quality thinking that have historically been accepted, and expected, that have all but disappeared from public and private discourse.  Standards for the assumption of truth and accuracy were practiced in my day without the necessity of challenge.  I assert that Americans have a collective responsibility to understand how our institutions work and to pass that understanding on to generations that follow us.”

Kevin recognizes the pedantic behavior. “My grandfather told me about a professor who said something like that to him — something about teaching himself the law — he was a tough old bird.  He used to ask questions that sounded simple but tangled grandpa in knots.  Said the guy made him lose his breakfast one morning.”

Kevin took advantage of a pause while both of them sipped from their glasses. He tried consciously to extricate himself from the feeling of sitting in a lecture hall and the urgent need to be taking notes; but to no avail …

“So, young man, to answer the question that is likely to be on your partially trained mind, I do feel some responsibility, shared though it is with the rest of American education and upbringing, for the fact that the quality of American decision-making has demonstrably diminished in recent years, wouldn’t you say?  You pointed out that Harvard Law provided a list of American presidents, albeit of mixed quality, along with other prominent decision-makers and thought-leaders; but I assert that Harvard Law is now contributing more professionals to Wall Street that to the halls of government [rolls his eyes again.], which is not exactly a feather in its cap.  I also assert that the current abominable level of intellectual application that has created your current societal disorder is the product of abysmal application of educational principles.  The Socratic method of instruction, which I grew up with and which I employed during my career, is useless on an audience without the prerequisite skill in logic, knowledge of factual precedent, means and ends, and the ability to recognize and apply common sense.  The absence of those attributes, among both educators and members of society writ large has led to some dismal decision-making.  I read your newspaper this morning and could not believe what I was reading.  It sounded like a poorly written comic novel.”

Kevin was feeling the need to say something to avoid assenting to the lecturing nature of this conversation; so, “I agree that my country has made some terrible decisions at all levels, in the halls of government, in the voting booth, as well as on the street — heck, I came out today without an umbrella, that’s what brought me in here.  But I am in law school to prepare myself to do something useful — to be part of a solution.  So, professor, what is your plan to mitigate all of that?  You suggest that you have some responsibility to admit and some damage to repair.  So, what’s your plan?  Have you come back to Harvard simply to admire the problem and confess your culpability, or do you offer a solution?”

For a third time, the professor turns to address the student directly.  “I have two answers.  First is to attack the crisis in Civics Education.  The problem is not just my complaint about Harvard Law School, the deficiency exists at all levels of education.  Among the American population, knowledge of the three branches of government, how they work, why they matter, how they balance and check each other is at the lowest point in our history.  Even those appointed to the highest levels of government service seem to have a dangerously unrealistic understanding of the scope of a president’s power.  Equally lacking is our understanding of the importance of the news media as the backstop to protect against egregious mistakes.  A public figure while I was still at Harvard Law, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, famously taught us: “Everyone is entitled to their own opinions but they are not entitled to their own facts.”  America has made serious mistakes in our history, but our strength has always been in learning from them and trying not to repeat them.  Right now, I warn you, because of the ignorance of our institutions coupled with an inability to recognize facts, there are serious mistakes that you will have to make, and learn from, all over again.  Some of those mistakes are beginning to happen right now.  Education is the only way to avoid doing that and it’s not going to be a quick fix.

“My second solution is you.”  He pauses for effect, keeping his eyes on the student while he drains the last of his whiskey.  “I think the best thing I can do is to turn this responsibility over to you.  I’ve given you enough to proceed on your own.  You have said that you plan to graduate and fulfill some dream of making a difference.  We’ve identified some fields you can plow in that effort.  Perhaps the challenge can be met in the field of education or rhetoric, or maybe you will be the eighth president to come from this institution.  That rests squarely on your shoulders.  So, now that I’ve assigned the problem to a qualified student, I think I’ve spent enough time here.”  He gestures grandly at the inside of the Grafton Street Pub.  “I claim that I have fulfilled the requirements of Dante’s ‘Purgatorio.’  I’m going to call it done.  Let’s agree that it’s your responsibility now.  Thank you for the drink and try to stay out of the rain.  I wish you well Mister  . . . what was it?”

“Hart. Kevin Hart.  And you, professor?  I didn’t catch your name.”

“Kingsfield.  Charles Kingsfield.”


Click here to download a PDF of this post:          Guy_walks_into_a_Bar_Mar10_2017

 

 

For those interested in the need for an improvement in Civics Education in America,
a national initiative with that goal has come out of the Second Circuit of the Federal Court system.
It’s called “Justice for All.”
Take a look here: http://justiceforall.ca2.uscourts.gov/

And It’s Still Just February

 Sandburg—
 Sandburg
 Sandburg
“Five hundred twenty-five thousand
six hundred minutes.
How do you measure a year
in a life?”
— from “Rent”
 Sandburg
+++++++
+++++++


Some Years Stand Out
I recently wrote a piece asking “What kind of year was 2016?”  Some of you participated by contributing to ConVivio’s “Thirty-Word Challenge” and sent me your assessments of how 2016 will lead to 2017.  You sent me some great words.  (Take a look: https://convivio-online.net/looking-back-at-2016-ahead-to-2017.) Maybe though, the bigger question is … what difference does a single year make?  Is 2017 going to be just a detour or will it be a major turning point?

Over the course of my 66+ trips around the sun, some years stand out in memory — some were good, some bad, and some were turning points in the flow of history.  During the first half of the 2017 Super Bowl (while the Falcons were still blowing out the Patriots), I was sitting with an enlightened friend of mine (I’ll call him Judge Danny) and somehow we got to talking about years.  At halftime, the TV commentators were talking about other Super Bowl blowouts, like the 49er destruction of the Broncos (55-10) in 1990.

PapaDan:  1989 was a memorable year, too.  The 49ers beat the Bengals…
Judge Danny:  Then there was the 1989 World Series with the Giants and A’s…
PapaDan:  I don’t want to talk about it.   [Changing the subject]   That was also the year the Berlin Wall came down, and revolutions popped up all over Eastern Europe.
Judge Danny:  Right…the end of the Cold War.

From sports we segued to “most momentous years.”

PapaDan: 1969 — Armstrong walked on the moon…
Judge Danny: And returned home. 1963 was unforgettable.  It hurt bad.  I was thirteen.
PapaDan: Yes, it hurt.  1964 was better, the Beatles and lots of great music.  And 1951 was a huge year in baseball. Growing up, I read all about Bobby Thompson’s “shot heard ‘round the world.”  Russ Hodges went crazy: “THE GIANTS WIN THE PENNANT!   THE GIANTS WIN THE PENNANT!”  1962 was another good year for the Giants, less dramatic but a big thrill.
Judge Danny:  I remember; but those were just baseball, right?
PapaDan: Right. So, in our lifetime, what do you figure was the most important year of all?
Judge Danny:  We’re the same age, right?  We both graduated in 1968. That was the biggest year since we’ve been around.  Don’t you think?
PapaDan: Wow.  Yes. No question about it.  1968 was a turning point.

We were interrupted by the second half kickoff and the subject of the “most important year” didn’t come up again — we were too busy bemoaning the collapse of the Atlanta Falcons.  The next morning, though, after depressing myself with the newspaper, I decided that Judge Danny had been right — 1968 was the single biggest turning point during my lifetime, both for me and for America.  There was a lot going on during several years of the turbulent sixties.  But 1968 stands out.  The title of an important research project on the subject said it well:
“The 1968 Project — A Nation Coming of Age.”

What did we see on the Evening News in 1968?
It was a year of “just one damn thing after another.” President Lyndon Johnson began the year with his State of the Union Address noting that “Our country is challenged at home and abroad,” and the challenges began immediately. One week later, North Korean patrol boats captured the Navy intelligence ship “Pueblo” within their 12-mile territorial waters, initiating a dangerous year-long international crisis. Then, a week later, the Vietcong launched the brutal “Tet” offensive; massive numbers of troops poured out of the jungles and devastated dozens of cities and towns.  The surprise invasion of the U.S. Embassy in Saigon and sudden large-scale deaths of American soldiers quickly turned public opinion against the war. Two days later, Richard Nixon declared his candidacy for president.  The following week, the Pentagon announced the largest one-week casualty figures of the war and Walter Cronkite, having just returned from a tour of the battlefields, reported that the best America could expect in the war was “a stalemate.” In the White House, President Johnson said privately, “If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost Middle America.”

–>  All that, and it was still just February.

As the year unfolded, the news continued to surprise and distress a lot of people.
— March 12: Senator Gene McCarthy nearly defeated the sitting president of his own party in the New Hampshire primary. Four days later, Senator Robert Kennedy withdrew his support of President Johnson and announced his candidacy.
— On March 31: President Johnson, overwhelmed by anti-war pressure, announced, “I shall not seek, and I will not accept, the nomination of my party for another term as your President.”
— April 4: one week after leading a march in Memphis that turned violent, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was shot and killed while planning his “Poor People’s March on Washington,” sparking riots across the country.  Robert Kennedy, hearing of the murder just before giving a speech in Indianapolis, stood up at a street corner and gave an emotional extemporaneous eulogy — pleading with the mostly black audience “to tame the savageness of man and make gentle the life of the world.”
— On April 29, the musical “Hair” opened on Broadway, dramatizing powerful social and political change and a “generation gap” between those who were coming of age in 1968 and their parents’ generation.
— May 6: In Paris, 5,000 students marched in what was soon called “Bloody Monday,” the most violent day of a student revolt.  Sympathetic strikes involved nine million French workers.
— June 4: Robert Kennedy won the California Presidential Primary, a victory that all but assured him the party’s nomination.  Minutes after his victory speech, he was assassinated.
— July 24: at the Newport Folk Festival, singer Arlo Guthrie performs his 20-minute ballad “Alice’s Restaurant” to rave reviews. (“You can get anything you want, at Alice’s Restaurant.”)
— August 8: The Republicans nominated Richard Nixon to be their presidential candidate.
— August 20: The Soviet Union invaded Czechoslovakia with 200,000 troops.
— August 26: The Democrats nominated Hubert Humphrey for president.  Outside the convention, protests erupted and Chicago police arrested nearly 200 people and sent more than 100 others to hospitals with “night-stick” head injuries.
— September 7: “Women’s liberation” groups protested at the Miss America contest in Atlantic City.  While nothing actually burned, the phrase “symbolic bra-burning” was coined.
— October 12: The Summer Olympics opened in Mexico City, boycotted by 32 nations to protest South Africa’s participation.  Two U.S. medal winners in the 200-meter dash, gave the “Black Power” salute during playing of the Star-Spangled Banner at the medal ceremony.
— November 5: On Election Day,  31,770,000 (43%) voted for Nixon. 31,270,000 (42.7%) voted for Humphrey. 9,906,000 (13.5%) voted for George Wallace.
— November 14: On “Turn In Your Draft Card Day,” young men across the country burned their draft cards and protested the Vietnam War.
— December 12: Robert and Ethel Kennedy’s eleventh child, Rory, is born.

What was it like for those of us watching all of this?
For me and others born in dead-center in the 20th century, 1968 was a singular turning point.  We were “The Class of ’68” at Antioch High School.  Except for the stories Walter Cronkite told us on The Evening News, the future looked bright.  Like most of my high-school friends, I lived in a bubble of stability and certainty.  High school was good for me — I got good grades, I played varsity sports, and in May I was accepted to the college of my choice (Santa Clara University).  I had a supportive family who encouraged me every step of the way, and I was surrounded by friends who were a lot like me.  But 1968 was also the year I got my first look at discrimination, major disappointment, and local cruelty.

Racial Discrimination
I started kindergarten in Antioch in 1955 and it took me until I started high school to notice that there had never been ANY black students in my school or anywhere in my town.  The first black kids I met were on the basketball court when Antioch High played Pittsburg High.

That year, Antioch’s foreign exchange student was a girl from South Africa.  Apartheid was still in full force there and I remember hearing her speak proudly about “separate but equal.” It didn’t sound right to me.

Then came “the big story.”  The parents of a student two years behind me (class of ’70) had moved to Antioch at the beginning of the school year.  As new arrivals, they were visited by the city’s “Welcome Wagon” and given a basket with various household products, advertisements for local stores, and advice about the town.  The “Welcome Wagon” greeter assured this new family that “This is a nice town full of nice people.  And don’t worry, you won’t find any blacks here — the realtors and landlords in town make sure of that.”  The new neighbors didn’t like that at all.  They asked around and found that others had heard the same thing.  Long story short, they filed a class-action lawsuit that gave Antioch an apparently well-deserved reputation for racism.  I was stunned — discrimination in MY town!

Optimism, Disappointment, Cruelty, and Regret
Around midnight on Tuesday, June 4, 1968, I went to bed happy.  I had turned off the TV following Robert Kennedy’s victory speech after winning the California Primary.  “Let’s go on to Chicago and win there,” he concluded.  It was one of the last three “school nights” before my graduation on Friday.  I was a huge fan of the Senator — my father passed on to me that we were “Roosevelt/Kennedy Democrats.”  I wanted very much for RFK to become president and pick up where his brother had left off. I figured Bobbie would end the war (and, therefore, the draft), support the civil rights legacy of Dr. King, and  …  well … save us from Richard Nixon.  In the morning, I was still in bed when I heard my mother come back from retrieving the newspaper and heard her shout, “Turn on the television!”  I jumped out of bed and turned on the TV to hear that Robert Kennedy had been shot right after delivering that victory speech.  I stared at the TV and cried.  I was 18 years old and I cried, hard.

Numb, I went to school. Some kids were stunned, a few were visibly upset, others hadn’t yet heard the news.  It was the talk of the hallways by noon.  After lunch, I walked into my Journalism class and found one student crying uncontrollably at her desk.  She was known to be an extremely sensitive girl and prone to emotional displays.  A few kids made it their business to try to protect her from bullies who made fun of her.  Before the teacher arrived and before I realized what was happening, a jerk named Michael, one of those bullies who sensed weakness and attacked for the fun of it, went up to her and announced, “Those Kennedys got what they deserved.  I say it’s about time.  There’s just one left, and we’ll see about him.”  She knocked over her desk as she ran sobbing from the room.  Michael strutted as he followed her out the door.  I quietly righted her desk and walked away as other students began to arrive.

This incident compounded the darkness I was feeling — darkness that got a lot worse before it got better. It took me some time, perhaps mid-summer, before the regret set in.  I had never actually punched anyone in my 18 years (or since); and if I had punched Michael, nothing would have gotten better.  But I have to say that the single greatest regret that endures all of these decades since my high-school days is that I didn’t do or say ANYTHING.  I was the witness to something harmful done to a vulnerable person … and I didn’t do anything.

Moving into a New World
Graduation was fun.  It made me feel that the future was bright.  But as summer warmed up, I became aware that the “bubble of stability and certainty” that I had lived in was disappearing. I was moving out of a comfortable home and leaving behind a school and a town where I had known sort-of everybody.  I realized that I would be surrounded by strangers.  So, come September, I had moved into the dorm (with the help of my sister), and life began anew.  Shortly after that, my roommate looked at me one day and declared, “A guy’s got to have some hair” and before I knew it, I had grown a mustache that I would have for the next forty years.

College was great!  There was terrific music everywhere (that most of our parents hated).  Judy Collins performed a concert in my cafeteria my first month at school.  Later that year, I spent a weekend with my oldest home-town friend in his dorm at the University of San Francisco; and we saw a free concert with The Jefferson Airplane in the Golden Gate Park Panhandle, (We even got “busted” by the dorm prefect … for drinking beer.  Yep, beer.)

Down the hall in my dorm, was Dan Pastorini, our quarterback (a future NFL star) and the cheerleaders were all guys. (Huh?!)  Professor Misselbrook inspired me with Robert Frost and Shakespeare, Dr. Bellotti taught my first (and last) Economics class (I had applied as an Econ major), and Dr. Nyquist, the Music Department chairman, stimulated a lifelong interest in Baroque music (who wouldda thunk?).  But still, who was I?  Where was I going?  Would I end up taking over my Dad’s business (the plan) or become a teacher, writer, or something else?  How soon would I begin to feel at home … again?  As the year ended, the newspaper continued its drumbeat of scary stories — 549,000 troops in Vietnam and a death toll of 17,000, the highest in the war’s history. The day I drove home for Christmas, the “Pueblo,” was finally released.  I admit I didn’t notice either story.  Suddenly, all of the worldwide uncertainty that I had heard on The Evening News all year, didn’t seem as important as the turning point I was experiencing as an 18-year-old college freshman on my own.  I had much to learn about myself and the world around me.

Back to “the future”:  2017
So, fast-forward nearly 50 years. Here we are in 2017, trying to make sense of a year that seems to change every day.  In just a month, the leader of the free world:
— Spread a series of “alternative facts” that advisors repeated and the world knew to be false,
— Initiated a potential constitutional crisis and caused chaos world-wide at airports, cities, and universities with an executive order to ban immigrants from seven countries, an order that he said had been implemented “smoothly” until it was blocked by a “so-called judge,”
— Sent a young “senior advisor” out to threaten judicial authority on the Sunday talk shows and clarify that “the powers of the president to protect our country … will not be questioned,”
— Told the Mexican president that he might send troops into his country to “take care of” some of his “bad hombres”; that same day he hung up on the leader of Australia,
— Insulted a long-term African-American congressman and civil-rights icon on the Martin Luther King holiday, calling him “all talk, talk, talk” and calling his hometown of Atlanta a “crime-ridden hellhole,”
— Promoted a political strategist (former Breitbart executive) to the National Security Council, and demoted the Director of National Intelligence and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff,
— Installed a national security advisor who had an inappropriate/illegal, back-channel relationship with America’s most dangerous adversary, then fired him for it, and blamed his firing on the news media for spreading fake news (“the information was real but the news was fake” and “I didn’t direct him to do it but I would have if I thought he wasn’t doing it.”),
— Responded to accusations of mental instability by saying “I comprehend very well, OK, better, I think, than almost anybody,” and observed that, in his chaotic first month in office, his administration was a “smooth-running machine.”

Commentators, writers, readers, listeners, citizens, others (you know, you and me) are asking questions like these: What’s true and what’s not?  How do we know?  Who is “we” and who is “they?”  Do the things we’ve learned over a lifetime still apply to the present moment? To the future?  And most important, what can we do to make sure this year is only a detour and not a turning point?

–>  And it’s still just February.

Click here to download a PDF of this post:   ConVivio_Just_February_Feb19_2017
— Major thanks to Gretta for good advice and to Lauren for her expert editing —

How Lucky We Are …

Carl Sandburg—

Orville Wright1

“Look around, look around,
look how lucky we are
to be alive right now.”

— Eliza Schuyler (from Lin Miranda’s “Hamilton”)

 

Carl Sandburg


… to be alive right now

These days, like so many others, I am immersed in “Alexander Hamilton.”  The musical play has been all the rage — a roaring success on Broadway and now it’s coming to San Francisco!   So, in our house, we have been listening to the brilliant hip-hop soundtrack; reading Ron Chernow’s biography of Hamilton (which inspired the musical); reading Lin Miranda’s script and commentary about the creation of the show; AND, yes, we have tickets to the show in May.

When I first heard about the show, I admit to being skeptical — a Broadway musical about the first U.S. Secretary of the Treasury (“the ten-dollar founding father”) set to “hip-hop” music (What is ‘Hip-Hop’? I asked).  But once I heard the soundtrack and felt the spirit, I have become a convert. The music and lyrics combined with our founding story and spirited characters are nothing short of thrilling.  At its core, “Hamilton” is a classic story of a poor immigrant who showed up at a critical time and made a powerful contribution to American history.  In a useful lesson for today’s leaders, he did it by acknowledging his ignorance and educating himself.  It is also a story devoid of a ‘Disneyland’ ending (spoiler alert: the hero, the former Secretary of the Treasury, gets killed in a duel by the sitting Vice President of the United States, Aaron Burr, at the dueling ground in Weehawken, New Jersey in 1804, no foolin’).

Twenty-eight years before their duel, as they prepared to join forces in the revolution, Burr gave Hamilton some advice:

“Talk less.  Smile more.
Don’t let them know what you’re against
or what you’re for.”

And then, more to the point, in a much faster rhythm:

 “I’m with you, but the situation is fraught.
You’ve got to be carefully taught.
If you talk, you’re gonna get shot!”

In the summer of 1776, Hamilton and Burr met in New York as the revolution was in full swing.  It was an exciting time. Eliza, one of two Schuyler sisters destined to fall in love with Hamilton (yes, it’s a love story), sums it up:

“Look around, look around
at how lucky we are to be live right now.
in the greatest city in the world!”

How lucky?  The excitement and optimism of the time was swirling all around them:
•   talk of freedom and independence was everywhere on the streets of their city,
•   revolutionary ideas (including the publication of Thomas Paine’s “Common Sense” in January of 1776) were on everybody’s lips (both for and against), and
•   it was a time when young people could step forward and make a difference.

It also had a very dark side.
•   War was brewing against an empire with the most powerful army and navy in the history of the world, and winter was approaching.
•   Slaves were being bought and sold on the streets and wharves of their own city.  Slavery had turned out to be the necessary political compromise among the colonies that made the union possible; so, abolitionists like Burr, Hamilton, and their New England compatriots had to swallow hard to believe that they could bend the future to match their principles, but … later.
•   New York harbor would soon be flooded with 260 British Navy warships and thirty-two thousand British soldiers. Thousands of their neighbors would be killed in battles fought in their own towns and farmlands.  Many would starve during the harsh winter that arrived with the well-fed British army and navy.

So, while these American patriots were optimists, their optimism came at great cost.  The King was determined to show no mercy to his disloyal subjects and reclaim his valuable property on the American continent.  In the show, the comically mad King George character sings,

“You’ll be back, soon you’ll see,
Yes, you know that you belong to me.
And when push comes to shove,
I’ll send an armed battalion to remind you of my love.”

These revolutionaries knew that many of them would personally suffer the ultimate cost for securing a future for their descendants.  And they did.

To be alive right now
How lucky?  Fast forward to now — here in 2017.  What about us, you and me: the 21st-century descendants of those wild-eyed optimists?  What can we learn from reflecting on their experience and ours?  Have we preserved their vision of America?  Is our vision of the future as bright as theirs?  Are our challenges greater?  Do we have reason to be hopeful, right now?
•   Today, as 2017 dawns, many of our friends, neighbors, and ourselves are doing pretty well.  Most statistics say that, overall, our economy is doing OK; the stock market is soaring.  Isn’t it?
•   Technology and other 21st-century advancements are improving our lives in exciting ways and many aspects of American life give us reason to believe that the future is bright.  Right?
•   After eight years of an African American President, shouldn’t race relations be encouraging?
•   America has the unique distinction of being the world’s dominant superpower.  Shouldn’t the founding fathers, and we, be proud and satisfied with the outcome of our revolution?

We are the heirs of the ideals, the optimism, and the governing principles that those brave folks earned for us, right?
–> So, today, can we repeat what Eliza sings early in Act One of “Hamilton?”

“Look around, look around
at how lucky we are to be alive right now.”

Well, sure.  That was in Act One.  But, before we romanticize the optimism of the revolution, let’s not forget that Thomas Paine had to publish his famous pamphlet encouraging American independence anonymously (see Aaron Burr’s advice to Hamilton, above). The threat was real.

How lucky?  Today, as we read the hard, frightening, depressing news of today and listen to each other talk about it, there are growing fears lurking in our future:
•   The news media, long the principal vehicle for ensuring an informed electorate, is threatened with access limitations and credibility challenges,
•   Long-held American foreign-policy positions and international alliances are now in doubt, apparently without the careful study and decision-making processes we have come to expect,
•   The conclusions of science, long held to be the bedrock of our understanding and the foundation of our policy decisions, are being devalued by those taking the reins of power,
•   Progress in securing the safety net for retirement income and health care is threatened,
•   Human rights, regarding race, gender, and national origin are being weakened by those who seem to have forgotten our long struggle to eliminate discrimination and inequality of all kinds,
•   The long-held bipartisan goal of reducing the nuclear danger is now threatened by new leadership that speaks of pursuing a new arms race,
•   The goal of government, to support the well-being of all Americans, is now called into question by those who are lining up to run our government for the benefit of the few.

Optimism, Hope in 2017?
In my own fear of what lies ahead, I am reminded to be confident, but patient – in words that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. borrowed from a sermon delivered in 1853 by an abolitionist named Theodore Parker, who borrowed it from others before him:

“The arc of the moral universe is long,
but it bends toward justice.”

But patience, while necessary, is not sufficient.  Success — as illustrated by Hamilton, Parker, King, and others — is reserved for those who work actively to bend that arc.  Those words were used, not at the end of successful struggles but at the beginning of hard times, when success seemed unlikely.  Even when we think we’ve made progress, we do not always complete that progress without the inevitable detours.  If I try to replicate the optimism of the American revolution, in the face of likely defeat; or try to emulate the hope of abolitionists, in the face bitter compromise; or support the efforts of those pursuing justice, in the face of bigotry; I conclude that 2016 must be considered a detour.  It doesn’t have to be a reversal of our progress or an abandonment of the path we thought we were pursuing.  We can make it into a detour – but we need to find our way back to that path.  The administration of Donald J. Trump is not the end of this story nor the name of a new path to the future; it must be identified as the name of a detour.

OK, I apologize.  I thought I could avoid using his name, but I decided that we must name the challenge if we are going to defeat it.  We must not speak of Trump like Voldemort (“He-who-must-not-be-named” or “The Dark Lord”) in Harry Potter.  The ideas he represents must be faced head-on, opposed, and defeated before we get too far off the path we were on and lose our way.  So, as we approach the 2017 inaugural address, let us recall the words of the first inaugural address I watched, from a time in my youth, characterized by more optimism and confidence (and patience) than we might be feeling today:

“All this will not be finished in the first one hundred days.
Nor will it be finished in the first one thousand days . . .
nor even perhaps in our lifetime on this planet.
But let us begin.”
— John F. Kennedy, January 20, 1961

So, now the real work begins.

Along with that work comes some frustration.  Those of a certain age remember marching on college campuses and engaging in political action to bring important American values into the light of day — values, among others, like these: equal justice and opportunity under the law, women’s health and reproductive rights, racial integration and civil rights, and decisions about America’s use of military force and the draft.  Those battles were successful, in their day.  The disappointment, and the reality, is that they must be fought all over again.

So, today — what will it take?

Remember: we know how to do this.
•   Some will welcome those who are not welcome, in their own communities.
•   Some will contribute time and dollars to help those who will suffer during this detour.
•   Some will join movements to influence votes.
•   Some will march, when the need arises.
•   Those with influence — teachers, lawyers, bartenders, parents, grandparents, neighborhood leaders (you know, you and me) — may find a way to encourage compassion, common sense, and unity in small places among those who will take over when we are gone.

We know how to do this.  Let’s start.  (The forces on the other side have already started.)

       “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.”
— Edmund Burke (and others)                          

Click here to download a PDF of this article:     ConVivio_How_Lucky_to_be_alive_right_now

Thanks to Lauren De Vore for her Editorial advice.

Looking Back at 2016 — Ahead to 2017

“How wonderful it is
that nobody need wait a single moment
before starting to improve the world.”
— Anne Frank

“The nation which can prefer disgrace
to danger is prepared for a master
and deserves one.”
— Alexander Hamilton

“Yes, we can.
— Barack Obama

2016/2017

Carl Sandburg


What Are Your Feelings About 2016 and Your Outlook for 2017?
(Your responses to the writing challenge: 30 words or less)

Of the fifty-some people who read ConVivio’s “2016” post, ten of you responded to its
30-word writing challenge.  I admire the variety of approaches you took: some with a broad national perspective; others with observations focused on their own lives; some optimistic, others not so much; some were quite poetic.

Thanks to everyone who sent a response.  Here they are:
==========================================
Overcome the recentness bias this year?  I think not.
The election’s outcome could affect us for decades.
Color me cynical and sad for this fine country.
Katie Walter, Stockton, CA

2016: The rotting corpse of the Democratic Party hopefully saw the error
of moving to the right.
2017: As Daniel said on the series finale of Rectify, “I’m cautiously optimistic.”
Steve Rubio, Berkeley, CA (typepad.com)

I’m ready to fight against climate change and Trump’s agenda.
Sonia Faletti, Washington D.C.

Working on myself as an active participant —  How can I be more present?
How can I be more aware?  How can I be a consistent critical thinker engaging with others?
Matthew D. Sapone, Aptos CA

Incredible year, many “ups,” one YUGE “down.”
Ups: Changed from large stable company to a startup.  Excellent decision!
Loving husband, strong family life, great friendships.
Downer: Won’t say his name.
Nouanepheng Sapone, Aptos, CA

If you want someone to understand (and adopt) your viewpoint,
you must first listen to and understand theirs.
No more preaching to the choir.
Lauren de Vore, Livermore, CA

The elections were like a pollution cloud, darkening everything.
Now, every day brings new confirmations of how bad 2017 can be,
for our country and the world. We’re worried.
Megan Taylor, Bellingham, WA

Unexpected atheism explodes into confidence as the rush of information
restores limbic, and age of majority is reached. Zen heart at 80 beats per
minute while ruffian’s words exile paralysis.
Jody Tims, Morgan Hill, CA

Daughter Srijana: Nepal, 1998, Scott College August;
her new boyfriend Haaroon: wants medical school;
Me: working CDC with fabulous Director Dr. Frieden;
2 dogs, 2 cats;
Me: nervous re. prez.
Jean Smith, Atlanta, GA

After the events of the last year, I don’t know how anyone can mount a compelling defense for the theory of evolution. Are we really getting smarter and better? Show me.
Jeannette Gosnell, Livermore, CA

Men often oppose a thing merely because they have had no agency in planning it,
or because it may have been planned by those whom they dislike.
Alexander Hamilton, New York, NY

Looking ahead, we always think we are smart enough to predict the surprises.
My hope is that we are wrong; and the surprises will not be the ones we expect.
PapaDan Sapone, Pleasanton, CA

A PDF of these responses can be downloaded here:        Thirty_words_Grace                                                                      

What Kind of Year Was 2016?

Carl Sandburg—

Orville Wright

Kitty Hawk, North Carolina

Fall, 1901

If we all worked on the assumption
that what is accepted as true,
is really true,
there would be little hope of advance.

Orville Wright

 

Carl Sandburg


This time of year, many of us take a moment and ask “What kind of year was this?”  Looking back at what I posted on ConVivio at this time last year, the year 2015 was looking pretty grim.  Many of us were looking for some encouragement, trying to find an excuse to feel more hopeful.  In that end-of-2015 ConVivio post (“Grace”), I described our annual attempt to find some seasonal, yuletide peace, hope, and, well, grace, with the help of Grace Cathedral’s annual Christmas concert of the Men’s and Boys Chorus, Orchestra, and Organ.  We followed that same recipe again this year, as we have for two decades.
More on that later.

When we try to look back and decide how we feel about a year, I suppose most of the time we decide that a year was either “terrific,” or “OK” or “terrible” based mostly on how we feel at the moment we are asking the question — near the end of the year.  Michael Lewis’ recent book “The Undoing Project” describes the trick that our minds play on us with what he calls the “recentness bias,” in which we are predisposed to use the most recent evidence in drawing our conclusions.  We don’t always take into account the entire year.  So, I thought — why not try to avoid that “trick” and take a broad look back at some of the things that happened across the entire year and see if we can come up with a reasonable answer.  Let’s give it a try and see if it helps.  Then, I hope we’ll get to see your answer.

First, the usual stuff that always happens in any year:

The Sundance Film Festival, Super Bowl #50 and Mardi Gras, the Daytona 500, NCAA Final Four, the National Cherry Blossom Festival, the Kentucky Derby, a bunch of Shakespeare festivals, the NBA Finals, the Summer Olympics, the World Series, Albuquerque’s Balloon Festival, and the annual crop of new words entering the our vocabulary— notably: Brexit, Calexit, virtual reality, self-driving cars, fake news  …  etc.  All of that happened as expected.

Second, the “special” stuff that happened in 2016:

In January, an armed militia took over a Wildlife Reserve in Oregon (and dominated the news) for six weeks; we learned that drinking water in Flint Michigan had been poisoning its residents for years; and as the primary elections heated up in March, Hillary Clinton emerged as the Democratic frontrunner causing polls and pundits to agree that her election was all but assured.  Two days later, Trump’s campaign was pronounced “doomed” when Mitt Romney called him a “fraud” and a “phony,” saying, “He has neither the temperament nor the judgment to be president.” Well, I don’t have to tell you that … later on … in November … well, you know …

With the coming of a hopeful Spring, marriage equality became a reality in California but also in surprising places like Georgia; the ban on gays in the US military was lifted; and the supposedly paralyzed US Supreme Court struck down a Texas law restricting abortion 5-3.  A few large states raised their minimum wage and progress was reported in preserving some endangered wildlife around the world.  About that time, Britain did two seemingly contradictory things, perhaps inspired by the 90th birthday of their Queen:  they elected the first Muslim mayor of a western city (London) and voted to withdraw from the European Union, reversing a 60-year trend toward European unification.

In June, the Broadway production of Hamilton received 16 Tony nominations, won the Grammy for Best Musical Theater Album, and captured the Pulitzer Prize for Drama
— not bad for a guy of questionable parentage who was killed in a duel 212 years ago.

In two technological triumphs, NASA’s Juno spacecraft entered Jupiter’s orbit after a 1.7-billion-mile, five-year journey to study the planet and a solar-powered plane flew around  the world without using a drop of fuel (it took 16 months).  Encouraged by the Paris Climate agreement, India reported that 800,000 volunteers worked 24 hours to plant almost 50 million trees on July 11th, beating the Pakistani’s previous one-day record of 1 million set in 2013 — reminding the world that, a month earlier, Donald Trump declared his intention to withdraw the US from the Paris Climate Agreement. (“It’s a hoax. Nobody believes it.”)

Third, some stuff happened that was NOT supposed to happen:

The Cleveland Cavaliers came back from a 3-1 deficit (a historic first), winning their first NBA title by defeating the Golden State Warriors.  The National League playoffs between the Giants and the Cubs happened and I don’t want to talk about it.  Immediately after that, the Chicago Cubs won the World Series, after waiting 108 years, by beating the Cleveland Indians, who are still waiting after 68 years.  (The San Francisco Giants, were supposed to win the World Series this year and I don’t want to talk about THAT either.)  Then, Americans elected a president who promised to Make American Great Again by employing a unique strategy …  (and we’ve already talked about that too much, haven’t we?)  Two weeks later, the Dow Jones responded to doomsday predictions after the Brexit and Trump wins and topped 19,000 for the first time (begging the question “What does it mean?”).  Finally, in this “not supposed to happen” category, Gwen Ifill, a longtime PBS News anchor, died at the age of 61.  Those who admire real news and respectful discourse mourned.

Finally, two more things happened that mattered to me:
1. I retired from a long career and was given a wonderful party (thank you Jessica & Brytni);
2. The 2016 Grace Cathedral Christmas Concert restored the uplifting and grace-filled themes that have inspired audiences (including Gretta and me) throughout its long and generous history (see https://convivio-online.net/grace/). Grace Cathedral’s musical signature, “Sleeps Judea Fair,” was again reassuring, peaceful, and hopeful — filling that magnificent cathedral with its transformational sound and powerful spirit. The blending of the mature and youthful voices and faces of the men and boys in that chorus, transported us all to a place we came there hoping to experience.  The dissonance we heard and felt last December was gone — for now.  I must admit that we needed that encouragement to look forward with hope to the year ahead.  They came through for us and, for that, I am thankful.

OK, So How Do We Feel About 2016, Really?

Well, now that you’re really annoyed that I left out your favorite “most important” event from 2016 (and I know you were looking for it), it’s time to commit: how do we really feel about the year that’s ending and prospects for the year ahead?  Again, I’m trying to avoid that “recentness bias” — you know, trying to ignore the feeling that the events of the past six weeks must completely overshadow our judgement about the whole year and color our anticipation of 2017.  The year we’re just now completing suggests the likelihood that 2017 will bring some surprises.  So, I offer two things:

One — A Request for 30 words from you:  I am asking you (yes, you) to put your thinking hat on (no, not THAT hat) and try to sum up your feelings about 2016 and your outlook for 2017 in 30 words or less and send them to me.  It’s a writing challenge — you can do it.  Many of you have demonstrated that you are very clever with words. If you take a few minutes and send me your words, I will publish them here on ConVivio (with your name if you give me permission).  Thirty words.  Can you do it?  (Repeat after me: “Yes, We Can.”)

Two — I offer my own 30 words anticipating how 2016 will lead to 2017:
Looking ahead, we always think we are smart enough to predict the surprises.
My hope is that we are wrong; and the surprises will not be the ones we expect.

I wish you all Happy and Hopeful Holidays!

PapaDan                      Download a pdf of this post:  Grace_2016_ConVivio_Final

A Good Man

postcard_writing_good_man

Carl Sandburg—

“The human race has one really effective weapon,
and that is laughter”

Few things are harder to put up
with than the annoyance
of a good example.”

“Forgiveness is the fragrance
that the violet sheds
on the heel that has crushed it.”
— Mark Twain

Carl Sandburg


Occupant
1600 Pennsylvania Avenue NW
Washington DC  20500
January 19, 2017

Dear Sir,

It has come to my attention — well, I guess it’s just starting to sink in —  that you are about to leave a job that has kept you constantly in the public eye for the past eight years.  While much attention has been focused on the next guy, I was thinking that it would be polite to drop you a note to say  . . .  well  . . .  thank you.

People have been talking about the job you did.  So, sure, we can talk about that first, if you like; but I have something more important in mind; and we’ll get to that.  So, first — how’d you do?  Here’s a list of the usual kinds of things — and, as you know, some people consider these successes and others call them failures.  You:

  • Avoided a deep recession that you inherited when you first showed up for work
  • Rescued the US automobile industry
  • Ended the US formal combat role in Iraq
  • Banned torture and brought Osama bin Laden to justice
  • Initiated a program that insures about 20 million people who couldn’t get healthcare
  • Appointed Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan to the Supreme Court
  • Supported marriage equality
  • Initiated heavy investment in renewable energy technologies
  • Crafted a multinational agreement to end Iran’s nuclear weapon program
  • Led 120 nations to agree to reduce emissions that threaten the worldwide climate
  • Opened the US to Cuba

You know, the usual kinds of things.  Now, some want to quibble about that list; but as I mentioned, I have something more important to talk with you about.

I want to thank you for being . . . you know . . .  A Good Man.

Now, I grant you that being a “good man,” by some agreed-upon definition, has never been a job requirement in your profession. We’ve had lots of the other kind – we seem to vacillate on that score. Over time we’ve had to look the other way on a lot of things.  But in your case, sir, we can look you in the eye without being embarrassed.

I admit that all of that economics and foreign policy stuff are all pretty standard for a guy in your profession; but a person in your job has other impacts that are sometimes overlooked. I know it seems like a small thing, but you have had this habit of thinking first before you talk; and after you do that, the things you say come out in complete sentences and paragraphs, which I tend to enjoy.  And, when those ideas get translated around the world, those clear sentences can be pretty useful.

I also appreciate that you don’t stomp around and lose your temper, even when they say rude things about you that aren’t true.  You seem to have overlooked even the worst of the lies.  You don’t seem to get into the “revenge thing” that some others do.  I appreciated your comment when some people predicted that the election results were “the end of the world.”  You lowered the temperature a bit and quoted Yogi Berra: “I always say that the only thing that is the end of the world is the end of the world.”  Even when guys tell gullible people that you weren’t born in the US, I’ve heard you make jokes about it.  Oh, yes that reminds me — guys in your profession are not usually good at telling jokes; but you have some real comic timing.  I still remember during a debate, Mitt Romney kept making a face and sputtering about “Obamacare” with obvious distaste.  You mentioned that it was called “The Affordable Care Act,” but you looked at him and said, “Hmmm.  Obamacare, I like it. I think we should call it that.”  Even Mitt had to laugh.

I suppose the thing I admire most is that your time on the job featured eight years without a hint of scandal — that’s not normal for guys in your profession.  You have been a steady husband and father and have behaved with a combination humor and dignity, even in the face of public insults.  Some of us forget that a guy in your job serves as a role model for other people, whether they want to or not, notably for little boys who look around to figure out how grow up to become a man. Other public figures don’t seem to have an eye for that.  In your case, we can feel comfortable that little kids might look at you and say to themselves, “I want to be like him.”  OK, I know there are those, like Mark Twain, who said “Few things are harder to put up with than the annoyance of a good example.”  But, you know, I have grandchildren.  I hope they’ve been watching.

So, I want to say ‘Thank You.’ All of that policy stuff is a subject for another day; but today I want to thank you for being a good man on the world stage, personally representing us in a way that made me proud.  It’s not mentioned in the news much; but it’s worth a lot to me.

Regards to you and your family,

PapaDan                           Download a PDF of this post:  convivio_agoodman_nov30_2016DS_logo

Where to? What Next?

My Syllabus

postcard_yosemite_nov2016

Where to?

Carl Sandburg—

“The people will live on;
The learning and blundering people
will live on.”
“They will be tricked and sold,
and again sold.”
“You can’t laugh off
their capacity to take it.”

— Carl Sandburg

Carl Sandburg


November 8, 2016

As I write this, I am sitting in a chair, surrounded by the spectacular beauty of Yosemite. Looking up from my pen and notebook, the carved granite of Half Dome stands directly in front of me; I can hear the constant roar of Yosemite Falls from my left; and the silent flow of the Merced River drifts downstream ten feet to my right.

yos_falls_5x5

Yosemite Falls

half_dome_best_4x4

Half Dome

merced_river_reflect_4x5-25

The Merced River

There is a spirit here — a spirit that (or who) inspires big ideas.

Today is a big day.  Today is Election Day (outcome yet to be determined); but this piece is not about the election.  It is about something much bigger:  It is about you and me, you know, America.  In the 1830s, Alexis de Tocqueville defined America as “the great experiment in democracy on the North American continent” with grand, historic intentions.  And, as I mentioned, America — that is, you and me — is much more than elections; and it is also much more than the good intentions that initiated that great experiment.  Henry Ford once famously said, “You don’t build a reputation on what you are going to do” (I read it on my tea bag this morning).  We are what we do; and that’s how we must be remembered.

So, what have we done?   “We” — that is, America before you and me — built a nation on some important ideas that had been brewing in Europe for quite some time, and “we” applied those ideas in an experiment.  “We, the People,” applied them to the lives of some of the people who lived on this continent; allowed lots of people from around the world to come here to participate; and actually welcomed many of them — not all of them, and some more than others.  And, while we were doing that, “we” (again, before you and me arrived on the scene) “we” built great things on those big ideas:

  • government institutions,
  • institutions of justice and law,
  • practices in support of banking and commerce,
  • transportation systems,
  • foundations to encourage the arts and sciences,
  • technology to change the world over and over,
  • systems to enable a historic level of prosperity,
  • traditions for how we treat one another,
  • and much more.

Along the way, we fostered an adventurous spirit that expanded the great experiment — America — across the length and breadth of the continent and, by doing all that, we built a reputation that influenced the lives of people around the world.

Yes, that was a lot of doing on which to build a reputation.

Now, granted, the expansion across the continent incorporated/appropriated a lot of land and resources that had for a long time ‘belonged’ to other people; and, granted, the prosperity we created was made available to some of us and not others; and the worldwide influence America wielded resulted in both good and ill; BUT …

Here we stand today — standing on the shoulders of giants (well, OK, some of them were giants and some of us made it to their shoulders).  Nevertheless, here we stand, here in the twenty-first century, you and me.  We are the heirs of what has been passed down to us and the stewards of all that America IS.

So, now that American IS you and me (yours and mine), what have we done? And what are we doing?

Remember, this is NOT about the election, honest, I promised.  Besides, we haven’t actually had the election yet — voting is still in progress cross the land as I scribble these words here beside the river; but we have been doing some things as stewards and owners of America — “We the People,” collectively — that really do define the time in which we live and the variety of experiences that we are all having. Those of us who read and listen have been hearing a lot of the details by which the news media keeps score of how we are doing:

  • more people are employed today than were working a year or two ago,
  • the average income of Americans has increased gradually in the past year or two,
  • the stock market, although fluctuating with the news cycle, is at an all-time high,
  • our achievements in science and technology are breathtaking,
  • there are more students attending American universities than ever before,
  • and much more.

AND, as has always been the case, America and its institutions face more dramatic and difficult challenges than ever before:

  • the benefits of American prosperity are shared unevenly, with more wealth at the top and more people at the bottom;
  • people less fortunate need more help than ever;
  • in spite of historic advancements by people of color throughout our society, more violent incidents of racial animosity are reported in the news almost every day, many of which include deadly encounters between law enforcement and minority citizens.

One observation every American seems to agree with is that “we” are more divided ever.

Technology enables our social interactions to be instantaneously and widely distributed — that’s both the good news and the bad news — allowing us to instantly distribute far and wide the most beautiful and the most vile ideas. We try to use that capability to help us discuss the collective decisions we have to make; and then we have elections — like today.

A famous line, attributed to several of our forebears reminds us that:
Democracy is that form of government in which the people get the government they deserve.”

As we wait for the results of today’s election, we might well ask, what do we deserve? Whether we like it or not, I suppose we will see the answer to that question in the election returns.  Will we all agree that we deserve what we get?  Perhaps we will look to those who have gone before us for guidance.  We have been warned about what we might deserve.
Thomas Jefferson: “I tremble for my country when I consider that God is just.”

So, do our forebears teach us what to do when we are disappointed?  On that subject., one of the most important speeches of our time is remembered by only a few. After losing his challenge of the results of the Florida vote count (he lost by 533 votes) in a decision by the U.S. Supreme Court (on a 5-4 vote), Al Gore reminded us, on December 13, 2000, of the longstanding importance of the peaceful transfer of power:
“Let there be no doubt, while I strongly disagree with the court’s decision, I accept it.  It has been resolved as it must be resolved, through the honored institutions of our democracy.”

This week, Al Gore spoke to a ‘get out the vote’ rally: “Every vote counts. Trust me on this.”

So, after listening to the rhetoric over the past few weeks, can we be sure that wisdom passed down to us about the ‘peaceful transfer of power’ will prevail at the end of this day?

So, how’d we do?  Tomorrow will tell the story.


November 9, 2016

This morning, we took a walk from Yosemite Lodge across Cook’s Meadow to the bridge on the Merced River.  A woman pointed up at a tree, “Look,” she said, “an American eagle!”  Sure enough.  There he was, perched high in a tree, his large white head turned to one side of his dark torso the way we always see him when he plays his role as the symbol of our nation.  Question: was he here to bring a message of encouragement to us up here in the mountains or did he come here to escape what had happened down in ‘the world below?’  OK, silly question — he LIVES up here in the mountains and doesn’t much care what happens down in ‘the world below.’  But for us, the symbolism was strong.

american_eagle_yosemite_5x5

An American Eagle

OK, so we learned what had happened yesterday down in the world below.  It was a shock, to say the least.  Some were asking, can we survive this?  But, as I said, this piece of writing is not about the election.  It asks the question – in light of where “we” have been and what we have done to get where we are today, what are we supposed to do now?  Regardless of which way the course of human events takes us, what are our responsibilities going forward?  Can “We the people” (you know, you and me, America) survive and prosper even when we make big mistakes and when things don’t go the way we had hoped?

Fortunately, there are optimists among our forebears who reach out from their own difficult days to offer hope to us in ours.  Carl Sandburg is one of those.  Below are words from his poem about what “the people” do in times of crisis.

The People Will Live On  — Carl Sandburg, 1936
“The people will live on.
The learning and blundering people will live on.
They will be tricked and sold and again sold
And go back to the nourishing earth for rootholds,
The people so peculiar in renewal and comeback,
You can’t laugh off their capacity to take it.
In the darkness with a great bundle of grief
The people march . . . ‘Where to?  What next?’ “

We have begun hearing from people who are concerned about the effects of yesterday’s outcome.  A friend of mine, seriously depressed about yesterday’s news, told me in an e-mail that she decided that she must do something.  Whining about our disappointment is not enough, she reasoned.  She plans to volunteer where she might be needed to help mitigate the effects of what happened yesterday.  Another friend told Gretta “I don’t know if I can get over this.” Gretta’s answer: “Maybe we’re not supposed to get over it.  Maybe we have to accept it and find something we can do to help.  People are going to need help.”  Others have suggested that it is time to increase our contributions to organizations that can help those who are going to suffer from the news — immigrants, those who will lose their health care, kids in school programs that will be cut, those who receive necessary assistance from government programs threatened by yesterday’s news, those who had hoped that “we the people” would try to mitigate global warming — you know, you and me: America.  There are many choices one can make.  As a first step, we have decided to increase some of our contributions.  These are some of our favorites:  The American Civil Liberties Union, The Natural Resources Defense Council, Planned Parenthood, The Sierra Club, and The Yosemite Conservancy.  Many other approaches are available — an organization that supports the homeless?  A school district, maybe even one in another town?  I suspect that we all have ideas to add to that list.

Yesterday, November 8, 2016, “We, the people” spoke in the form of 290 electoral votes; and today, “we the people” have the opportunity to speak in other ways as well.

Looks like some difficult times ahead for a lot of people.

What must I do to help?

What must you?

Download a PDF of this piece: where_to_what_next_convivioDS_logo

Decades We Have Known

(and one we’re still getting to know)

postcard_dec-ades_sep2016

“Yes, here we are
right in the middle of it;
but what should we call it?”

 

 

 

 

 

 


Those of us who went to school around the middle of the 20th century were taught to understand the passing of time in distinct eras, each having its own character and name. For example, the thousand-year period called “The Middle Ages” was a characterized principally by ignorance and short life spans. Following that, it seems, the focus of history narrowed to individual centuries. The 15th century (roughly, 1450 to 1550) is remembered for its intellectual and artistic awakening and discovery and thus called “The Renaissance.”  Today, our understanding of distinct definable time periods comes down roughly to decades, both in our education and in popular culture.

So, as I read the news and listen to the pundits of our day, as they attempt to identify the trends of our times, I am driven to ask:

  • given the pattern of the decades we have come to know best, what name would a thoughtful person give to the decade in which we live today? How will the 2010-2020 decade be remembered in the years to come?

Of course, since this decade is not finished, our judgments must be preliminary.  But let’s give it a try.  As a start, let’s review the decades of the most accomplished and truly “American” century of them all, the 20th century.

1900 to 1910 — “The Good Years”

During the first ten years of the 20th century, from an American point of view, the world was mostly at peace.  Shirts cost 23¢, but the children who made them earned a mere $3.54 a week.  Teddy Roosevelt proposed to strengthen the U.S economy with his Square Deal and sent the U.S. Navy around the globe to introduce the world to the idea of American power. My grandparents, like 3 million other immigrants escaping a crushing depression in Southern Italy, sailed in the belly of big ships from Naples to New York. Last but not least, my father rounded out the decade by being born in Red Jacket, West Virginia on October 10, 1910.

For many Americans, according to a commentator of that time (John Clark), “The future was simple; rewards would go to the virtuous” and Americans perceived themselves to have “the personal material out of which a millennium would grow.” Historians have called this decade “The Good Years”  (see Walter Lord’s “The Good Years,” Harper and Row, 1960).

1910 to 1920 — “The End of Empire, War in Europe”

A powerful worldwide upheaval began. In America, much of the population moved to cities and there was a dramatic reduction in immigrants from Europe compared to the mass migration of the previous decade. The world began to see the end of a long-established world order, disintegrated into World War I, and suffered the historically unprecedented destruction and loss of life that went with it.  A “new world order” was established once “the war to end all wars” finally …  well, so we claimed  …  ended war itself and, in America, ushering in …

1920 to 1930  — “The Jazz Age” (or “The Roaring Twenties”)

This decade began, inauspiciously, on January 16, 1920 with the onset of Prohibition. It is hard to accept that the alcohol-marinated events of “The Jazz Age” could possibly have begun with a national decision to prohibit alcohol consumption; but as Will Rogers famously said, “Prohibition is better than no alcohol at all.”

Songwriter and philosopher Jacques Brel summed up ‘The Twenties’ this way:
“We must dance because the Twenties roar,
The Twenties roar because there’s bathtub gin,
Vo-de-oh-do and the road to sin,
The road to whoopee and a whole lot more.
Charles A Lindberg, tons of confetti,
Dempsey, Tunney, Sacco and Vanzetti
Black, Black Monday and the market drops
But we keep on dancing, dancing, we can’t stop.”

For many Americans, the party didn’t stop, until …

1930 to 1940 — “The Great Depression”

On the day the Jazz Age ended, the Thirties began: October 29, 1929, with the stock market crash and the beginning of the Great Depression.  Unemployment and bread lines became the dominant images.  Across the Atlantic, the world darkened further with the growing power of Fascism and Nazism in Europe and the pervasive fear that all of Europe would plunge into war again.  The lights went out, virtually worldwide, for the better part of the decade, until …

1940 to 1950 — “World War II, Victory, The Seeds of Prosperity”

The Forties arguably began on September 1, 1939 with Hitler’s invasion of Poland, formally starting World War II.  Many Americans, led by Charles Lindberg and other vocal isolationists, insisted that America should stay out of the troubles in Europe and focus on our own economic challenges.  While most remember December 7, 1941, as the day that got America into the war, it was actually December 11 – the day that Hitler declared war on the U.S. and Russia.  That gave President Roosevelt the clear justification to actively enter the war.  The disastrous unemployment of The Great Depression was “solved” with the massive ramp-up of industrial production to support the war effort, which put Americans back to work (although the war killed 60-80 million people worldwide.

1950 to 1960 — “Stability, The Cold War, and Prosperity … for Most of Us

Looking back as someone born in 1950 into a middle-class community, the Fifties was a period of stability and order, a large-scale expansion of the American middle class, and the re-establishment of a calm and mostly prosperous domestic life for much of America that hadn’t really been seen since the start of the century.  A new brand of celebrities like Allen Ginsberg and Maynard G. Krebs introduced Americans to the new vocabulary of “The Beat Generation.”  But …

The Cold War started. It began with the Berlin blockade on June 24, 1948, or maybe with the establishment of NATO on April 4, 1950, or perhaps with Joseph McCarthy’s “Wheeling” speech on February 9, 1950.   Domestically, the uneven (mostly white) prosperity of the Fifties, coupled with the return to ghettos of many returning U.S. soldiers, the Fifties surely germinated the seeds of the turmoil that burst forth in the next decade.

1960 to 1970 — “The Age of Aquarius”

The Sixties began with a sense of optimism and inspiration epitomized by the election of an eloquent and youthful president, but those hopes were dashed dramatically on November 22, 1963. While the polarization, cynicism, and youth rebellion often associated with the Sixties is traced back by many to the Kennedy assassination, the Era of Rock and Roll as well as much of the colorful wildness and anti-establishment post-Woodstock psychedelia and self-actualization associated with the the Sixties really didn’t come into full flower until the early 1970s.  In the middle of the decade, discontent among those who did not benefit from the prosperous “normal” of the Fifties (i.e., African Americans) erupted violently in cities all across America as a reaction against brutal racism and income inequality.  Others marched in the streets to protest a war that those who grew up in the Fifties did not understand; once they did understand it, they liked it even less.  THAT Sixties was not colorful, prosperous, or peaceful (and 50,000 U.S. soldiers did not come home from that new war).

1970 to 1980 — “The Me Decade”

The Seventies really began on June 17, 1973, even though few people noticed at the time. Five associates of the Committee to Re-Elect the President (yes, known as CREEP) were apprehended while breaking into the Democratic National Committee Headquarters in the Watergate office complex in Washington D.C.  In spite of efforts by the president to “make one thing perfectly clear,” one thing led to another and introduced some enduring phrases into the American lexicon: “The Plumbers Unit,” “The people need to know that their president is not a crook,” articles of impeachment, a resignation, and, perhaps most lastingly, the suffix “-gate.”  Some would argue that American politics would never be the same.  Others argued that “the same” was exactly what it was … and continued to be.

1980 to 1990 — “The Beginning of Fact-Free American Politics”

The Eighties began on January 20, 1981, minutes after the presidency had passed from Jimmy Carter to Ronald Reagan and Iran released the 52 Americans who had been held hostage for 444 days. The decade that followed featured the distortion of American conservatism, from a moderate notion of limited government (actually practiced by Republicans from the 1950s through the era of Watergate) to the excessive expansion of government under the Reagan administration. (Surprised? Look up the numbers – highest Federal budgets per GDP, most Federal employees in history, widespread international intervention, etc.). And all of this took place amid the simultaneous “Small-Government” rhetoric of…well…Ronald Reagan.

1990 to 2000 — “The Best Decade Ever” (so reported by the WSJ and the NYT)

The Nineties were characterized by the rise of multiculturalism, the collapse of the Soviet Union, and the spread of capitalism in that vacuum. In American politics, the Nineties were dominated by a battle between the centrism of the Clinton administration and the politics of personal destruction perfected by the other party, later named RINO by the fictional Will McAvoy of Newsnight (for “Republican In Name Only”). The American economy grew at a strong 4%, median household income rose by 10%, the poverty rate fell from 15% to 11%, the U.S. murder rate declined by 41%, the federal government ended the decade with a budget surplus, the Stock Market quadrupled in value, and the wearing of neckties in offices began to diminish.  But,

On the world stage, wars broke out in the Congo, the Persian Gulf, Chechnya (twice), Kashmir, Kosovo, Yugoslavia, Croatia, and Bosnia, to name only a few, and a host of civil wars redrew maps on at least two continents.  However, apartheid in South Africa came to an end.  The Nineties also featured an unprecedented explosion of the Internet and computer technology (although these advances were soon to be dwarfed by a greater explosion of the Internet and computer technology just around the corner).

2000 to 2010 — “The Rise of Terrorism and The Great Recession ”

The Oughts, the first decade of the 21st century was initiated by the arrival of large-scale terrorism on American soil. This heinous crime was followed by a panicked attempt to combat terrorism through the dismantlement of civil liberties at home and a misdirected military response against a country and a dictator who had nothing to do with 9/11.

Oh, yes, the U.S. had a historic period of anti-intellectualism, manifest in the depletion of education budgets and leadership of a president “misunderestimated” for his lack of interest in intellect, let alone possession of it (stimulating an all-but-forgotten quote from Garrison Keillor: “Who needs a fifty-dollar haircut on a fifty-cent head?”).

The housing finance and stock market investment disaster during the Dubya era sent the U.S. economy into a tailspin.  Recession and unemployment were stopped just short of a Depression by an infusion of fiscal stimulus and government regulation (who wouldda thunk it?).

2010 to 2020 — “Whah?”

Well, that brings us to the present decade, of which we stand approximately in the middle and the question that I started with:
•  What should we name this decade?  More precisely, what are we likely to call it when this decade is done? So, let’s explore what we know about this current decade, so far.

The ?????   

  • The West’s war against terrorism becomes terrorism’s war against The West.
  • The end of “carefree” in America and the avoidance of crowds.
  • A generalized paranoia, growing gun ownership, and gun violence.
  • A gradual, but dramatically uneven increase in prosperity.
  • A decline in the power of labor unions and a decrease in the size of the middle class.
  • The re-emergence of racial tension, especially between minorities and law enforcement.
  • The maturing of “Fact-Free Politics” and the trend toward “voting against” in which nobody believes fully in the available choices.

•  I invite you, dear reader, to send us your suggestions.  What should we call this decade we inhabit today?  I am interested in your ideas.  DS_logo

Download a PDF of this post:  convivio_decades_sept2016_final

For fun, below is an added bonus for those who, like me, identify decades with music …

The Soundtracks of the Decades
(The most popular songs listed on U.S. Billboard)

The Tens:
When You Were Sweet Sixteen (1900)
Stars & Stripes Forever (1901)
Bill Bailey (Won’t You Please Come Home) (1902)
In the Good Old Summer Time (1903)
Sweet Adeline (1904)
Give My Regards to Broadway (1905)
Yankee Doodle (1905)
Auld Lang Syne (1907)
My Gal Sal (1907)
Take Me Out to the Ball Game (1908)
I Wonder Who’s Kissing Her Now (1909)
Swing Low, Sweet Chariot (1909)

The Teens:
Let Me Call You Sweetheart (1910)
By the Light of the Silvery Moon (1910)
Alexander’s Ragtime band (1911)
When Irish Eyes Are Smiling (1913)
By the Beautiful Sea (1914)
Carry Me Back to Old Virginney (1915)
I Didn’t Raise My Boy to Be a Soldier (1915)
O Sole Mio (My Sunshine) (1916, Enrico Caruso
Over There (1917)
For Me and My Gal (1917)
Rock-A-Bye Your Baby (With a Dixie Melody) (1918)
I’m Always Chasing Rainbows (1918)

The Twenties:
Swanee (1920, Al Jolson)
My Man (1922, Fannie Brice)
Yes! We Have No Bananas (1923)
Rhapsody in Blue (1924. George Gerschwin)
California, Here I Come (1924, Al Jolson)
Sweet Georgia Brown (1925)
Ain’t She Sweet? (1927)
Stardust (1927, Hoagy Carmicheal)
Ol’ Man River (1928)
Mack the Knife (1928)
Ain’t Misbehavin’ (1929)
Tip Toe Thru’ The Tulips With Me (1929)

The Thirties:
Happy Days Are Here Again (1930)
Dream a Little Dream of Me (1931)
It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing) (1932, Duke Ellington)
Stormy Weather (Keeps Rainin’ All the Time) (1933)
Brother, Can You Spare a Dime? (1932, Bing Crosby, others)
On The Good Ship Lollipop (1935, Shirley Temple)
Summertime (1936, Billie Holiday)
They Can’t Take That Away From Me 1937, Fred Astair)
Blue Moon (1935)
Sing, Sing, Sing (With A Swing) (1937, Benny Goodman)
September in the Rain (1937)
Thanks For the Memory (1938, Bob Hope and Shirley Ross)
Over the Rainbow  (1939, Judy Garland)
God Bless America (1939, Kate Smith)
Back in the Saddle Again (1939, Gene Autry)

The Forties:
When You Wish Upon a Star (1940)
In the Mood (1940, Glenn Miller)
Blues in the Night (1942)
White Christmas (1942, Bing Crosby)
As Time Goes By (1943)
Don’t Fence Me In (1944, Bing Crosby)
This Land is Your Land (1944, Woodie Guthrie)
The Christmas Song (Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire) (1946, Nat King Cole)
Some Enchanted Evening (1949, {Perry Como)
All I Want For Christmas is My Two Front Teeth (1949 Spike Jones)
Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer (1949, Gene Autry)
La Vie En Rose (1949, Edith Piaf)

The Fifties:
How Much Is That Doggie in the Window (1953, Patti Page)
Mister Sandman (1954, The Chordettes)
Sh-Boom (Life Could Be a Dream) (1954, The Crew-Cuts)
Three Coins in the Fountain (1954, Four Aces)
Mambo Italiano (1954, Rosemary Clooney, yep George’s mom)
Stranger in Paradise (1954, Tony Bennett)
Sixteen Tons (1955, Tennessee Ernie Ford)
Rock Around the Clock
(1955)
Heartbreak Hotel, All Shook Up, Hound Dog, Don’t Be Cruel (1956, Elvis Presley)
Que sera sera (Whatever will be will be) (1956, Doris Day)
At the Hop (1957)
It’s All in the Game (1958, Tommy Edwards)
Johnny B Goode (1958, Chuck Berry)
All I Have to Do is Dream (1958, Everly Brothers)
Venus (1959, Frankie Avalon)

The Sixties, Seventies, Eighties, Nineties, Oughts, etc
YOU KNOW THESE, DON’T YOU?

For a these songs and more – check out: http://tsort.info/music/ds1930.htm

Click here to download a PDF of this post:    ConVivio_Decades_SEPT2016_FINAL

 

Back To School: 2016

Postcard_pencil_pusher

 

 

 

This past month,
as my grandchildren head back to school,
this former ‘pencil pusher’ reflects:

How has “Back to School” changed?

 

 

 


Back to School: A ‘Pencil Pusher’ Looks Back

Who’s Your Daddy?

Growing up in Antioch, a middle-class California town, in the 1950s, the boys I knew competed on the school playground in the same ways, I assume, that boys did in other places. Hierarchies were established, often starting with a conversation like this one:

“Hey, you can’t cut in front of me, I’m up next.”

“Well, I called it.”

“What do you mean you ‘called it?’ You can’t just call it!” (Remember when you could call it, you know, “I got dibs.”)

“Nobody wants you to bat with runners on base.  You never hit the ball out of the infield. You’re an automatic out.”

“Oh, YEAH? (then comes the big one at this early stage of the argument):
“And you throw like a girl.” (It didn’t get much more personal than that in 1959.)

Next comes the appeal to fairness. “You gotta wait your turn.”

Fairness fails and is trumped by an appeal to personal strength. “Who’s gonna make me, YOU?”

Up to that point, that’s pretty standard stuff; but, unless the boys were willing to throw punches or were stopped by some external interruption, the argument could move completely outside of the playground into more sensitive territory.

“You’re as wimpy as your dad.”

So, where did that come from?

Antioch was a serious factory town in the 1950s. We had a DuPont plant, two Fiberboard plants, a Crown Zellerbach paper mill, a Glass Containers factory, Fulton Shipyard, Continental Can, Kaiser Gypsum, Union Carbide, Dow Chemical, a rubber mill, two canneries, Dexter Hysol out on Bailey Road, the Redwood Manufacturing Lumber Yard, and a U.S Steel plant just outside of town on Loveridge Road. Turns out that a major percentage of the dads in the vicinity worked in one of these facilities.  (By the late 1960s, about one-third of the local moms also worked outside the home, but in Antioch back in the fifties it was mostly dads – just like a script from TV shows we watched like “Father Knows Best” or “Leave It to Beaver.”)  So, when a guy was challenged on the playground, some portion of his status was wrapped up in his dad’s occupation; so the next level of insults could take a new direction, refining the playground hierarchy:

“I bet your dad’s the smallest guy at Fiberboard.”

“He doesn’t work at the stupid Fiberboard plant; he drives a forklift – the big one that hauls tons of stuff.”

“Tons of what?  Peaches at the cannery?  My dad works at U.S. Steel. They make steel for cars and airplanes and big stuff.”

“Big deal!  My dad’s a foreman. He orders guys like your dad around all day long.”

“Yeah, well . . .  “ he searches for something to top that  –>  and here it comes,
“Your dad doesn’t do REAL work, he’s just a pencil pusher.”

What’s a ‘Pencil Pusher?’

If these boys were lucky, the inning ended or the bell rang or Sister Bernadette showed up with her uncanny ability to sense when boys were heading for trouble, so it seldom escalated to an actual fistfight. But those of us watching from outside of the argument were left wanting to know: What’s a ‘pencil pusher?’ What kind of job was that?  It was made to sound pretty insulting.  Guys, and gals, were wondering: was my dad a ‘pencil pusher?’  If he was, just how embarrassed should I be?  Was that as low on the totem pole as the kid on the playground made it sound?  Did that insult win the argument?  It would have been instructive — to us fourth-grade bystanders at least — if the exchange had been allowed to run its full course and we could find out who won the argument in the only definitive way we knew: which one ended up on the ground crying and which one walked away with all of his teeth?

Of course, one way or another most of us who cared eventually learned, or decided for ourselves, what it meant to be a ’pencil pusher.’ To those who used it as an insult, it meant a job that didn’t require physical strength and skill to build things — the work that made someone a ‘real man’ in a factory town like this one.  After all, as we were all taught by our ‘Greatest Generation’ parents and teachers, the post-war economy was built on production of things like cars and trucks and refrigerators and all the other things that TV commercials told us we needed to buy. Those products, the stuff they were made of, and the containers they came in were produced with physical labor in factories like those in our town.  Many Antioch dads did that work.

But gradually, as the 50s turned the corner into the late-60s, we baby boomers were presented with other choices. To some, a ‘pencil pusher,’ it turned out, was someone who used his brain to plan or organize or communicate the ideas and processes that made the manufacturing economy successful. He might have been an accountant or insurance broker, a union leader or a lawyer, a newspaper reporter or a manager. AND, increasingly, gradually, pencil pushers turned out to be women, as well (a feature that distinguished the 1960s and beyond from the 1950s).

My dad, who worked in the steel mill after completing less than a junior-high education in the Santa Clara Valley, went to night school to become a pencil pusher (i.e., an insurance agent).  So, from my earliest memories, my dad made clear to me that I was going to college so I could become a pencil pusher of some kind.  He never used that word, but there was no question that he didn’t want me to work in one of the Antioch factories. Increasing numbers of us who graduated from that playground, later graduated from high school and went to college fully intending to become very good at pushing a pencil and, eventually, using other ‘labor-saving devices’ like typewriters, telephones, calculators, and much later, computers.  Pencil pushers, it turned out, helped turn many kinds of labor jobs into well-paying union careers and provided opportunities for promotion that broadened the middle class and made it increasingly prosperous as the 1960s matured in our town.

Boing!  With the 1960s, athletics begin to dominate

The ‘Pencil Pusher’ conflict of the late 1950s, which I observed mostly as a bystander, didn’t have much of an effect on me personally, since it was all about competition on the playground; and I was not perceived as competing with anyone.  I was a kid who carried around a leather briefcase that my father gave me to carry my books. Reading was the ‘sport’ that he encouraged every way he could.  On the playground of the 5th and 6th grade, I was pigeonholed in the category of the “uncoordinated,” which kept me safely out of competition with other boys. I was picked last when teams were picked (when I HAD to play baseball in PE), I found that if I gravitated to tetherball, while it was technically a ‘sport,’ it seemed to keep the competitive forces of the playground at a distance.  But then, as I went back to school in the fall of the 7th grade, everything changed.  EVERYTHING.  During the summer and fall of 1962, I grew six inches.

As I described in an earlier story on ConVivio (https://convivio-online.net/a-moment-in-the-sun/ ), the basketball coach (in conspiracy with Sr. Bernadette and my mother), forced me to join the 7th-grade basketball team — VERY much against my will.

At first the others on the team seemed amused when I showed up; but to my (and their) surprise, I did pretty well without embarrassing myself too much. I got a bunch of rebounds, blocked some shots, threw the ball down court to Gary to start the fastbreak, and helped the team win. For the others, it was no longer amusing when the coach made me one of the starting five.  Then it became serious; but some of them got used to having a formerly uncoordinated kid become one of them.  After a few weeks of this, one day Tom Augustine  — an all-sport athlete — gave me a nickname.  He said, without malice, just stating the facts, “You’re not really any good, are you, you just have ‘BOING,’ right?  You know, like a spring.” We were friends, so I took it well.  He was right.  I didn’t have the usual set of athletic skills.  I had ‘boing.’

As a result of some coaching and persistent practice in my backyard, by the time I showed up in high school, I was a real-live starting high-school basketball player, with all of the privileges and respect that went with it.  No foolin’. Apparently, by the last half of the 1960s, the fact that my dad was a ‘pencil pusher,’ no longer did me any harm. Perhaps that stigma had begun to disappear, even in a factory town like Antioch, and we had to earn our own respect (or lack of it).

In High School — What next?  The ASVAB Test

So, at Antioch High School, basketball wasn’t going to get me much more than a little respect on the basketball court; it was time to take the next step, whatever that turned out to be.  The next step, as my guidance counselor informed me, was to find out what I was good at to prepare myself to go to college. She had spoken to my dad and, she told me, ”He made some things clear – you are going to college whether you like it or not, you know that don’t you?” I hadn’t heard it put quite that way exactly, but it wasn’t a surprise. And she said something more:  “He also told me that he was hoping that you would take over his insurance agency after you graduate. You know, ‘A. J. Sapone Insurance And Son’ and all of that.” So she told me, “I advised your father that he would have to wait and see if that turned out to be what your son is good at. He may have other skills and other interests that he’ll figure for himself. So, he may end up taking a different path.” She told me that she didn’t think he would be thrilled with that outcome, but he seemed to accept that as a possibility.  She also suggested a strategy.  “The Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery (ASVAB) of standardized tests was going to be offered in a few weeks,” she told me. I want you to take that test and we’ll see what it tells us.”

“I won’t have to join the army, will I  . . .  because, you can for… “

“No, everybody gets to take it.  It tells us what kinds of professions you might be best suited for, based on your interests and talents. It might help.”

So the test came and went and we waited for the results. The background: by 1967, the values of popular culture began to be influenced by some recognizable themes. Appreciation for the outdoors, for individualism, for public service, and other attributes that came to us from music and TV resulted in some predictable answers to questions designed to identify personality traits. So when the results came back and were reported to us, I learned that I was most suited to becoming a forest ranger. The wonderful joke was that more than half of my friends learned that they had the same destiny. One saw me holding the familiar envelope and said “Forest ranger, right?”

“Right.”

When I asked my counselor about it she confirmed the glitch in the data analysis, “Yes, I guess you’re going to have to figure it out for yourself.” That, of course, had been her real advice all along. So, “back to school” had new meaning. I went off to college with that question: did my future have an “And Son” sign hanging on it, or was there something else I had to choose?

As my grandchildren head back to school at various stages of their education, perhaps they are in the middle of a similar process.

With the 2016 Version of “Back to School,” What has Changed?

Looking back across the decades that followed, many things changed.  The education I receive prepared me for a long career as a ‘pencil pusher’ —  a writer and editor.  Pencils began to take a back seat to other tools that dramatically accelerated the advancement of ‘pencil pusher types’ of an increasing variety.  As the 20th century passed into memory, in an equally dramatic reversal, the middle class itself has begun to shrink as many labor jobs — jobs that were so well esteemed on my playground in the 1950s  — began to draw a diminishing share of the benefits of the increasingly globalized and technology-driven economy.

As an older guy recently retired from my career as a ‘pencil pusher’ — a guy with seven grandchildren growing up on very different playgrounds — I have some questions:

  • Are the conversations on their playgrounds different today?
  • Does the occupation of their parents play a greater or lesser role than it did on my playground?
  • What will be the shape of the middle class that they will graduate into? What will it take for them to access the quality of life that was made available to me?
  • Will the education available to them prepare them for the world they will meet when they graduate?

My grandchildren seem to have some advantages — they all seem to be smarter than I was at their age; they all have university-educated parents; they have access to vastly more technology that I had (I had a transistor radio, and electric train, and a bicycle and they have  . . .  well, other stuff), and they are exposed to much more cultural diversity than I was (my town and my playground had none).  The technology they have at their fingertips provides them with information and answers that my generation had to dig for by going to the library.  Is their instant access to information an ‘advantage’ or does it bypass some of the learning experiences I had?  Will they be sufficiently prepared in subjects related to 21st-century science and technology?  AND — equally important to this ‘English major’ — will they have a solid foundation in the Humanities necessary to be a well-rounded human being?

I think they will.  The evidence for that optimism is my observation that their parents (our children) are providing them with experiences that expose them to reading, science, the arts, and personal interactions that are helping them develop into curious, confident observers of the world around them and smart thinkers.  I see those parents actively involved in their children’s school, extracurricular music and arts programs, and sports teams. And the kids are proud of the things they do. So, I am optimistic.  Still, I suspect that there are things we older folks can do here in this 21st-century ‘back-to-school’ season to help them succeed.

As for the conversations they have on their playgrounds – I guess I’ll have to ask them.
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