Sunday, December 24, 2017

A gift of love: A Helen Marco story

In 1940, Helen Marco, a dark-eyed Greek girl with coarse black hair, slipped in and out of the rooms of the Brooklyn Kallman Home for Orphaned Children. Entirely independent, she moved like a cat who owned the place. She had no distress, other than concern for one of the younger girls who had whooping cough and heartache for a preschool boy who cried out of loneliness.
Helen was only sixteen, but she “owned” the orphanage, feeling that she was exactly where she needed to be. When the snow fell, she played with her “brothers” and “sisters”—wallowing in the frigid days as though they were a warm blanket. On the long, sunny days, she would walk down the street on her way to school with her head down in hopes of finding a nickel or a dime, which would be enough for admission to a movie starring Clark Gable or Katharine Hepburn.
On Saturday night, it was time for everyone’s weekly bath. If she was lucky, she was third or fourth in line before the water turned murky from all the sweat and dust and grass stains from the girls who bathed before her. But, frankly, that didn’t bother her all that much. She loved her sisters—she even told them so when the lights were low, and she was feeling sentimental.
When summer arrived, she—along with nearly one hundred other Kallman Home orphans—would go to a camp near Spring Valley, New York for six sun-drenched weeks. When she was younger, she was a camper; now, at sixteen, she was a camp counselor.

She was in charge of a cabin full of nine-year-old boys.  Right at home, she thought of them as gamboling puppies—full of life and wonder and affection. But the boy who made her sigh in tender anguish was Hermie—a handsome, but gangling boy, with round tortoiseshell glasses and a crop of unruly dirty blonde hair.
He was an awkward boy, as the first afternoon on the baseball field confirmed. A step slow and a little afraid, he was likely to swing and miss at a pitch that was too high and outside. So, late in the game, when Hermie was at the plate for the third time, his teammates started making fun of him.
“Come on, four eyes, hit the ball for once in your life,” one boy shouted, his hands framing his mouth. But the worst insult was leveled from the spry and wiry shortstop: “Wormy Hermie, taxidermy,” which made no sense, but still made the boys laugh and punch each other on the arm.
As Helen listened to the barrage of jeers, she could see Hermie’s eyes darken and his complexion turn ashen. When the boy had struck out for the third time, he walked back to the bench, his shoulders rolled over his ribcage, his bat tracing a line in the sand behind him.
When the boy squatted at the end of the bench away from the rest of the boys, Helen sat down beside him and put her arm around him. “That’s okay, Hermie,” she said. “I’ll teach you how to swing before the week is up.”
At first, Helen thought that the boy cringed under her embrace, but when he looked up at her, she saw only admiration and a hint of confusion. She was too meek to imagine what he was really thinking: Why would such a beautiful, grownup girl be so good to me?
Helen just smiled and then pursed her lips and whisked her hand across this lawless hair.
That night, after bows and arrows, after washing the dinner dishes, after a campfire marshmallow roast, Helen led her troop of boys to their cabin.
They brushed their teeth and scrubbed the dirt from their faces and, for a few, from behind their ears. Then they were off to bed.
“It’s been a good day,” Helen announced. Then she recited a bedtime ditty that her house mother had taught her when she was six or seven. “Don’t let the bedbugs bite. If they do hit ‘em with a shoe, that’s what my grandma used to do.” She chuckled, kicked off her tennis shoes, and slipped into her bunk at the door.
There was a rush of whispers and giggles, which made Helen grin with languid satisfaction. She rolled to her side to face the boys and soon was fast asleep.
Across the room, Hermie was still stinging from the snipes on the baseball field. He sure didn’t want to be the camp goat. He wanted to be one of the guys—to laugh with them, roll in the dirt with them, and come out pals.
But Hermie had a problem—a big problem. And what made the mess unbearable was his total helplessness. He’d slam a sledgehammer on the back of his hand if it could make the problem go away. But it couldn’t; nothing could. In the middle of the night, when he was in his deepest sleep, he would dream about swimming, and in that swaddle of water, he would relax everything until the urine drained. And then, the slow release, the sweet surrender would suddenly turn into horrifying panic and shame as he awakened knowing that he had done it again. He had wet the bed, and he could die.
But not this night, not the first night of camp. He had a plan that he had hatched when he was still at home. He was sure it would work; it had to work. He reached into his pocket and drew out a thick rubber band and wrapped it once, twice, three times around his penis. He was surprised; sure, it felt a little strange, but it really didn’t hurt all that much.
He was on his back now, looking straight up at the slats that ran across the bunk above him. He let out a long, slow draft of breath and finally fell asleep.
The moon waxed and waned.
Hermie was awakened—not by the sun or the cawing ravens—but by his throbbing peter. He picked at the rubber band, but in the night his penis had engorged with blood and urine, and the band was stretched to its limit. He groaned—first softly, hesitantly, and then louder and louder until his agony irrupted into a scream.
Helen threw back her blanket and dashed to the boy’s bedside. “Hermie, what is it?” she asked, her eyes big, searching for understanding. “What’s wrong?”
Hermie reached out, laced his fingers around Helen’s neck, and drew her ear to his mouth. “It’s my weiner,” he whispered.
By now, a half-dozen boys had surrounded Hermie’s bunk.
“Everyone go back to bed,” Helen said with authority. “This doesn’t concern you. Now get.”
The boys scampered back to their bunks.
Helen turned to Hermie and smoothed two fingers over a bulging vein at the boy’s temple. “I need to look, Hermie,” she said as softly as a prayer.
The boy pulled the blanket to one side. His shorts were rolled down below his knees.
Helen’s eyes narrowed. She was not embarrassed. The patch of red that crept across her neck was not out of modesty or shame, but pure empathy for the tormented boy.
The rubber band had held its ground, but the flesh on both sides was red and purple and grotesquely swollen. “Don’t worry, Hermie,” Helen said, whispering into his ear. “We’ll take care of this.”
Helen rushed to the first-aid kit that was stowed under her bunk, grabbed something, and bolted back to Hermie’s side. But when she revealed what was in her hand—a gleaming pair of surgical scissors—Hermie howled. “NOOO, DON’T CUT OFF MY WEINER.”
A wave of boyish laughter rolled and crested within the cabin walls.
“No, no, no, no,” Helen assured. “I’m going to cut the rubber band. Not you. I promise.”
The boy rounded his mouth and blew a steady stream of air.
Helen carefully, meticulously edged the tip of the small scissors under one loop of the band and snipped the very edge of the elastic, then a little more, until the band finally sprung loose.
“Oh, thank you,” Hermie said as in a gushing tribute to someone who had just slapped down death. He wrapped his arms around Helen’s neck and pressed his face into her chest. “Thank you, thank you,” he said, and then added with conviction, “I love you.”
“You’re welcome, Hermie,” she said, embracing the boy with all the compassion her spirit knew. “I love you, too.”

Helen Marco was an extraordinary teenager. She did not possess the self-doubts of most young people her age. She was honest and true and strangely aware of the emotional condition of others. I should know. Helen Marco was my mother, and from my birth in 1946 to her death in 2008, I inhaled her unconditional love every day from beginning to end.
When she first told me Hermie’s story, her words were soft and tinged with sadness for a boy who struggled to be accepted in life.
I like to think that Hermie was influenced, maybe even transformed by my mom’s tenderness, by her gift of love.
I know Mom has greatly influenced me. For example, I’ll never forget my adolescent days when Mom would leave a grocery or department store, walk a few paces down the street, and then splay her fingers and let the change from her purchase jingle-jangle to the ground.
“Why do you do that?” I once asked.

“Because it will make a child’s day,” she said without hesitation. Then, putting her arm around me, she added, “Besides, we have so much, don’t we Son? We’re the lucky ones. We have each other.” 

Friday, December 8, 2017

Dataism: The Next Religion

My mother kept a diary when she was growing up in a Brooklyn orphanage. For three years, my wife recorded her thoughts in a journal when we lived in France and Algeria. Today, keeping a diary or a journal seems quaintly old-fashioned. What rules the world now is dataflow and exchange. For example, we take an uncensored, unedited notion, download it to Facebook, and then check every two minutes to determine how many “likes” we’ve received. For what good is a thought if it is not published, if it is not shared on the world-wide-web, over which all may fawn and marvel?
This is my point: We are all moving from humanism (which teaches us to look inward to discover truth) to dataism (which attributes meaning to the algorithms that manage data).

One day there will be no need for truck drivers or welders or even doctors and lawyers—all the data that is swirling around us will be captured, collated, and conceptualize more accurately than any human brain could ever imagine. You will not need a doctor for a diagnosis or a treatment plan. You will only need to consult with IBM’s Watson—or another database yet to be conceived.
The algorithms of data will know you better than you know yourself. For example, already Fred Meyer sends coupons to my wife for the items she most often buys. She no longer has to recall what she needs; the data programs from her favorite grocery store will do it for her.
Likewise, I have no need to remember my interests. The Google algorithms are configured to tell me what I desire. I don’t have to remember what I want. Google will happily remind me—not to suggest that Google is a person; it is not; it is an algorithm.
Some may be thinking, “Hold on there, Merry Sunshine. I still keep a diary, and I never buy anything online.”
Yes, everything conforms to a normal bell curve. There are always a few outliers at a minus three or plus three standard deviations from the mean. If that is you, congratulations, but you are in a meager minority. When you die, no one will replace you.
Moreover, it takes time for change of this magnitude—sometimes hundreds, even thousands of years. For example, it took a few millenniums for the polytheistic religions of Mesopotamia and Egypt to evolve into monotheistic religions as transcribe in scriptures. It took a few more millenniums for scripture-based religions to evolve into the independent will and self-consciousness of humanism. But today, the evolution to dataism is on a frenetically fast track. We are no longer talking a millennium. In some cases, we are talking a few decades, even a few years.
As we study human history, we see that our religious inspirations have evolved: from the sun to god to humanism to the sifted data ushered into the temples of Google, Amazon, and ChoicePoint. Evolution does not reverse course, and the current course is data on steroids.
Can we put the brakes on this transformation? In a word, no. But in our lifetime we can choose to be religious rebels. Just as there are still people who worship the sun, you may choose to cling to your faith in Christianity or Islam or Judaism or humanism, rather than be swept up by the tide of dataism. You may make that choice now, but be assured that the choice will be exceedingly less likely for your grandchildren.

But wait. There may be another alternative. Perhaps you can stand planted with your right foot in one world and your left foot in another. Perhaps you can hold to the antiquated custom of writing a journal and publishing your words in the realm of dataism—just as I have done today.   Consider this a thought for the day from one who is edging—kicking and screaming—into the murky and mysterious matrix of algorithms.

Sunday, December 3, 2017

Mindfulness separates fiction from reality

            What stories should we believe? Does the beguiling co-ed really need to wash her hair on Saturday night? Is scripture really the infallible word of God? Did Russia really collude in the 2016 election? All tough questions. So how do we separate fiction from reality? How do we cut to the truth?
Fiction versus reality
            Fiction is about the stories we spin to inspire and motivate people to action. That’s not always a bad thing. Good stories are needed to kindle any noble mass movement: equality, liberty, and fraternity—to name three.
            Reality may be defined as the consequences of stories. Stories in themselves are innocuous fairy tales. But a duplicitous storyteller can whip up an audience into a frenzy of discontent. And that discontent can end in suffering, which is the evidence of reality.

            In the 11th century, Pope Urban II spun a compelling story—that it was time for Christians to recover the Holy Lands from Islamic rule. The reality of that story resulted in the death of an estimated 1.7 million soldiers and civilians over two centuries. That suffering was real.
            Given the reality of suffering, it is critical to recognize the moral and physical consequences of our stories. A well-crafted tale may rally the troops, but if the consequences are immoral, we have been gravely deceived by the storyteller—just as crusaders were duped by the “glorious emancipation of the Holy Lands,” and, 900-years later, Americans were deceived by the egregious hawking of the invisible “weapons of mass destruction” in Iraq.
The mindfulness of humanism
            I believe that humanism is essential in cutting through the ethical questions that arise out of fiction. In its purest form, the humanist looks inward for guidance—beyond the dogmas, beyond the slogans, beyond the political spin. She seeks to be fully mindful.
            To adapt a formula from Homo Deus by the renowned historian Yuval Noah Harari, the humanist is guided by this formula:
Mindfulness = Experience x Sensitivity
            The humanist sits quietly in a room and recalls all of her experiences—all that she has seen, heard, or read that registered as moral or immoral, ethical or unethical. She then multiplies that knowledge by sensitivity—that is the probability for suffering. Only then she makes her decision.
            For example, imagine that our mindful humanist is deciding who to vote for in a presidential election. She must first consider all she knows about the candidates: What do they stand for? How grounded is their character? How solid is their competence? Then, she must multiply that evidence by the potential spike in suffering. Who will suffer financially? Who will be unable to afford health care? How will our planet fare?
            To address the last question, she might recall her reading on global pollution. She’ll remember that pollution is a scourge that kills fifteen times more people than all the violence in the world—including wars. In fact, she will remember that nine million lives are lost each year through pollution. The magnitude of so much suffering is unconscionable. What candidate cares about this issue?
            And then she votes.
My last word
            We must never allow fiction to dilute reality. Despite the blaring trumpets, patriotic hymns, and waving flags, despite our urge to turn up the volume on Fox News and breathe in all the red herrings that distract us from the putrid scent of duplicity and greed, we must cut through the fiction. A good place to start is to remember the words of the famous scientist and theologian Blaise Pascal: “All of humanity's problems stem from man's inability to sit quietly in a room alone.”

            Don’t be duped by the story. Keep your eye on reality. And always be mindful.

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Americans are the victims of their own fantasies

“May I tell you something about Americans that you may not like to hear?”
The provocative question was asked by a French friend, Pierre, as we sipped wine in the warm sun outside a Mediterranean café.
“Of course,” I said honestly.
“It’s this,” Pierre said. “We love Americans, but they are incredibly naïve—almost like children. Americans will believe anything.”
Pierre and I had that exchange fifteen years ago, and I am still haunted by his words. The more I thought about it, the more I suspected that Pierre was right. Kurt Andersen—the American novelist and host of NPR’s Studio 360—sealed it for me in his 2017 exposé Fantasyland: How America Went Haywire.

In the first chapter, Andersen wrote:
“ . . . Americans have given ourselves over to all kinds of magical thinking . . . and belief in fanciful explanations . . . that console or thrill or terrify us. And most of us haven’t realized how far-reaching our strange new normal has become.”
Magical thinking is nothing new in America. Salem Puritans executed twenty witches and sorcerers (and two satanic dogs) four generations before the signing of the Declaration of Independence.
But don’t fool yourself. Fanciful thinking is not a forsaken, archaic American custom. In a 2010 Pew Research poll, 41% percent of those surveyed said Jesus would return before 2050. (On a personal note, in 2008, the pastor who conducted the memorial service for my mother said, “Don’t worry about Helen’s passing. Jesus will return within the year, and we’ll all see her again.”) 
In the same Pew survey, 25% of the respondents believed in astrology (including 23% of Christians). Reincarnation was equally popular (23%), while 29% said they had been in touch with the dead. In fact, 18% reported that they had seen or been in the presence of ghosts. But, ironically, only 32% believed that evolution was true. In contrast, Norwegians either fully agreed (59%) or somewhat agreed (24%) with evolution. Even in Mexico 64% of the respondents believed “humans and other living things evolved over time.”
Popular culture reflects and intensifies our affinity for magical thinking. Consider the five biggest box office movies of the 21st century—their earnings converted to 2017 dollars:
1.      Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015) $969 million
2.      Avatar (2009) $857 million
3.      The Avengers (2012)  $758 million
4.      The Dark Knight (2008) $608 million
5.      Shrek 2 (2004) $573 million
All fantasy movies. And lest you think I’m cherry picking, the next ten highest grossing films are also pure fantasyland, including two Spiderman flicks, two Star Wars blockbusters, two films from the Harry Potter series, and sundry movies about Caribbean pirates, Hobbits, talking toys (Toy Story), and teenagers fighting to the death (The Hunger Games).
As you might guess, the 21st century best-selling books followed the same cultural propensity for fantasy:  Harry Potter, Robert Langdon, Fifty Shades of Grey, Twilight, and The Hunger Games.
Of course, the influence does not stop there. You can attend one or more of twenty-five conventions across the nation whose themes are the supernatural, Vampire Diaries, and Star Trek. You will be among 10,000 other attendees, all vying for a glimpse at one of their fantasy heroes.
Or maybe you would rather be a star yourself. You’re in luck. In 2000, the first reality TV show, Survivor, aired on CBS. Today, there are 400 reality shows, all designed to make you the star you always fancied.
If you don’t want to wait for your big break, sign up with “Celeb-for-a-day” and be a grand celebrity with six personal paparazzi, one bodyguard, one publicist, one limousine, two-hours of non-stop action, and your own magazine cover—all for $1500, plus your flight to Los Angeles, San Francisco, or Manhattan. However, it may not happen right away; there’s currently a long waiting list.
The degree of passion around so much make-believe is astounding. I remember meeting a young cashier who had a tattoo that ran the length of her arm. It looked like Chinese characters, so I asked, “What does your tattoo say?”
“It says ‘Glory, power, and destiny,’” she murmured, her eyes all dewy with emotion.
“Really. What language is it?”
“And what is that on your other arm.”
“It’s the English translation.”
Believe it; Americans are swirling in a vat of fantasies. These are a few of the cultural influences that have seeped into our national consciousness in my lifetime: Bewitched, The X-Files, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, the World Wrestling Federation, survivalists, fantasy football, LSD, Playboy Magazine, Las Vegas, Reno, Disneyland, state lotteries, James Bond, super heroes, Life After Life, Chariots of the Gods, The Late Great Planet Earth, Jim Jones, David Duke, Rush Limbaugh, UFOs, alien abductions, gangster rap, McCarthyism, the domino effect, white racial victimhood, Breitbart News, birtherism, and alternative facts.
Some may be thinking, “Well, so what? What’s wrong with a little fantasy?”
I’m glad you asked. If we are mindlessly preoccupied with the insidious distractions of fantasies, we are less likely to notice or even care that politicians are stealing elections, that wars are being orchestrated, that health care is skyrocketing, that the world is warming, that 43 million Americans are living in poverty, and that CEOs are earning 400 times the salary of their employees.
So, in the name of reason, do not stand idle. Teach your children and grandchildren to be fiercely discerning about what is real and what is make-believe.

As Socrates said, “The unexamined life is not worth living.” If we plod numbly, insensibly from season to season—unaware of the fantastic follies that are festering and searing our souls—we are no longer the masters of our own destinies. We are the victims, and the villains . . . are us.

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Commitment powers our most pivotal life decisions

This is a memoir of two tales separated by ten years, yet linked by a single powerful quality.
1958: McLoughlin Junior High school. Age twelve.
            When the quarterback called the play, I cinched up my helmet strap and took in a deep breath. The ball was coming to me. I stood—butt down, my hands on my knees—just behind and right of the field general.
            “Ready, set, hut, hut, HUT.”
            The ball was snapped. The QB turned and jammed the pigskin into my gut. I took two steps, maybe three, when the biggest kid on the defensive line slammed me to the ground like a bag of wet cement. Certain that my ribs were rearranged and my teeth reshuffled, I tried to recall what planet I was on.

            At that moment, my world changed. Before then, I considered myself an athlete. After that single play—even before the stars stopped swirling around my head—I decided to become a scholar.
1968: Kelso, Washington. Age twenty-two
            After graduating from college, I taught English, drama, and speech at Kelso High School. It was where I wanted to be, but the nights were lonely. I loved teaching, but I wanted a soul mate.
            In the beginning of the school year, I spotted a stunning blond at an all-district faculty meeting, and I instantly felt woozy. She wore a lemon-yellow mini-dress over fishnet tights. Her name was Nita, and she was drop-dead gorgeous.
            I summoned all my courage to introduce myself to the beautiful woman in yellow. A first date was set in mid-October; a first kiss sealed my love; and on Christmas Eve, we were married. I still remember our vows: “to have and to hold from this day forward, for better, for worse, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, till death us do part.”
The link: Commitment
            We all have had pivotal moments in our lives: the times when the very next decision will change our destiny. Those moments are simple. What is hard is preserving our commitment.
            When I was flattened on the gridiron, I decided to become a scholar. At that age there was nothing scholarly about me. I was a C- student who had never read a book. I never quite understood fractions, not to mention algebra. And I rarely did homework.
            All that changed. I had a new routine. Right after school, I rushed home, walked directly to my bedroom, and started studying—night after night. By the time I graduated from high school, I was an A student. At my college commencement, I graduated with honors. Let’s be honest; I was no world-class savant. But, damn it, I was as scholarly as my finite intellect would allow.
            Then, in 1968, I was married. Once again, my commitment was on the line. How loyal would I be? Let me put it this way:
            A year ago, my wife was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, an incurable neurological disorder that has touched 2.5 million Americans.
            At times, friends ask me how Nita and I are dealing with the disease. My answer is always the same. “My wife and I see Parkinson’s as part of the natural cycle of life. There are challenges that come and go—and, yes, some linger. But despite the adversities, we never choose to be victims; we move on.
            “But there is something else that is even more important. Nearly fifty years ago, we made a covenant to love each other in sickness and in health. That covenant is as real and dear as the day it was pledged. Our love will never change. That is sacred, immutable ground.
            “And when days become more difficult—as they likely will—love will anchor us. Love will carry us through.”
            Why am I saying all this? I have learned that a few crucial, pivotal moments in our lives are transformational and not to be taken lightly. Those who are sloppy about their personal missions are not living; they are sleepwalking. And, to make things worse, they become easy prey for imposters seeking feckless followers. As the adage goes, those who stand for nothing, fall for anything.
            I could never be a true athlete. I never had the strength, the agility, and, more importantly, the passion. But I could be a scholar. I could buckle down and dedicate myself to life-long learning.
            Nor could I ever be a loner. I am, by nature, too social—one who longs for community and craves intimacy. But I can commit to the woman who has been my life’s partner. I can wake up in the morning, see the sunlight streaming across her beautiful face, and say, “Nita, I will always love you—in sickness and in health, now and forevermore.”

            And to those who think that, like Delilah, my wife has sheared my hair, you may be right, but it is so much sweeter than having my teeth reshuffled.

Saturday, August 12, 2017

For good or bad, we are all ambassadors for our country

            I was standing before assorted boxes of hot cocoa mix, puzzling over the brand that would most please my pallet, when I noticed a willowy Frenchwoman standing beside me.
            “What do you think?” I asked in French. “I can’t decide what chocolate to buy.”
            Now, I didn’t have to ask her opinion. I’m a big boy and certainly capable of choosing a box of hot chocolate. But then, I would not have touched another human being from another land. We would have passed silently into the night and never awakened the gods of serendipity.

            So, I asked, “What do you think?” And, despite my American accent, the woman did not pinch her face or squint her eyes to unscramble my meaning. Judging from her unruffled demeanor, I was speaking in the most elegant Parisian French.
            “Well, I would not choose this one,” she said, pointing to a can with a cartoon bunny with floppy ears and frenzied eyes. “Entirely too sugary.”
            “Absolutely,” I said, furrowing my brow in condemnation.
            “I would recommend this,” she said, selecting a plain, dark-brown box from a higher shelf. “This has no sugar and the chocolate is pure. It’s perfect. However, there is a problem.”
            “Eh, oui. The powder is difficult to stir into the milk.”

            “Oh, my.”
            “But there’s a solution.”
            “A solution,” I echoed with a smile reserved for close friends sharing an inside joke.
            “First, you pour a small amount of milk,” she said, measuring an inch between thumb and forefinger, “stir until it’s thoroughly mixed, then fill the cup to the brim and mix again.”
I immediately took the box from her hand and tossed it into my cart.
            Now, I often strike up a conversation with strangers in France, and most of the time, they are delightful. But this woman was so exquisite, so charming that I was in love . . . well, at least in love with the moment.
            “You’ve been so kind, I wonder if you could help me with another question?”
            “I’d be happy to if I can,” she said with a heavenly smile.
            “I’m looking for son de blé (wheat bran).”
            “Oh, yes, that would be found in the organic section,” she said, pointing the way.
            I thanked her, reluctantly said goodbye, and headed for the organic foods—what the French call bio.
            Once in the right department, I labored to find the elusive product.  Just then, I turned and looked into the dancing eyes of the charming Frenchwoman, appearing like a guardian angel.
            “Oh, I’m so glad to see you again,” I chirped. “I can’t seem to find the wheat bran.”
            “It would be over here,” she said, guiding me around the corner and down the next aisle.
            When we had found the box of fiber, I again thanked her and joked, “I’m going to be in France for a month. Would you just follow me around and take care of me?”
            She laughed—more like a soothing sigh than a guffaw—and said, “Et pourquoi pas?And why not? I’m not doing anything for the next month.”
            We said goodbye, and she was gone. But she was not out of my mind. Suddenly, I wanted to tell her something. But when I looked for her, she had vanished just as she had appeared: like a friendly apparition.
            This is what I wanted to tell her:
            “Thank you for being so warm and welcoming. You have reminded me that we’re all ambassadors for our countries, that we have the power to influence every preconception and every remembrance. After all, it only takes two or three encounters for a traveler to decide if a country is kind or crude, civil or coarse. And, based on that shallow pool of evidence, our impression either glows or festers as we share our experiences with our friends back home. When I am in the States, and people ask about my trip to France, I will think of you, fair lady, and say, ‘They are incredibly gracious—with sparkling eyes and an easy laugh.’”
            That’s what I would have told her.
            Over the years, I have had a thousand encounters with the French (and, yes, a few were regrettable). But with each exchange, I am reminded that I have a responsibility to be the best ambassador I can be for my country—to readily reach out when I hear another language tinged with confusion or misgiving.
            I just hope that one day a person with perplexed eyes will ask me where the cocoa mix is found within the long aisles of an American supermarket. I will certainly smile and say, “Please, let me show you the way.”

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Four roads to happiness

I love books, but far too often my passion is thwarted. I always hope that I’ll fall madly in love with the next book—that she will caress me, tease me, devour me. Frankly, that seldom happens. More often than not, she slips away in the middle of the night, leaving me singing the blues: “The thrill is gone . . . .”
But not this time. This time I read a book that lingers. It was a book that Barack Obama included in his list of ten essential reads. I wholeheartedly agree. The book is entitled Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari, a brilliant professor of history at Hebrew Jerusalem University.
Harari’s ideas are abundantly diverse, but, for now, I’d like to share his thoughts on happiness from the book’s penultimate chapter. The author describes three current roads to happiness.

According to Harari, biologists now know that people carry a measurable range of serotonin, dopamine, and oxytocin. Some people have more of these pleasure-inducing chemicals coursing through their bodies, while other hapless hosts have less. So, if we were to scale happiness from one to ten, your perky spouse might bounce around the homestead with a score of eight, while you are doomed to the drudgery and doldrums of a score below five. Perhaps you know couples like this: a cheery, optimistic wife and a dreary, pessimistic husband, or vice versa. Winning the lottery will generate little pleasure for a low-chemistry person, whose only option may be to load up on Prozac, which boosts the level of serotonin.

So in the end, your level of happiness may be a roll of the DNA dice. You are either born happy or miserable.

Finding meaning in life is the second road to happiness. As Nietzsche said, “He who has a why to live can bear almost any how.”
But Harari is not crazy about this idea. In fact, he suggests that it’s all delusional. He points out that our medieval predecessors were deluded when they found meaning by building cathedrals and marching off to Crusades to ensure a happy afterlife. But twenty-first-century sapiens are no less delusional—all frenetically spinning their behaviors into meaning. A soldier declares he is going to war to secure democracy; a capitalist asserts that her enterprise will improve the nation’s quality of life; a scientist trumpets that his research adds to the library of human knowledge. Harari suggests that all of these intrinsic claims are embraced only because they synchronize with the prevailing societal delusions.
Extinguishing cravings
Harari finishes by reciting the Buddhist idea that happiness is only derived by extinguishing our cravings for feelings or achievements. Just as one cannot hold back ocean waves, we are defenseless against the tide of emotions—anger, joy, ennui, pride. The Buddhist releases any attachment to emotions—to any fantasies about what could have been or what will hopefully become. Peace is the outcome when emotional and material cravings are finally forsaken.
A fourth idea
Inspired by Harari’s treatise, I found myself reflecting on a fourth road to happiness. This is purely anecdotal evidence, but it seems to me that I am most happy when I am lost in the moment—when I lose track of time. Perhaps I’m deluding myself or, equally possible, the lucky recipient of large doses of serotonin, but I routinely find myself in a state of timelessness. I have felt it while keynote speaking, mountain climbing, and engaging in deep, intimate conversations. But it most often happens when I’m creating—playing the piano or painting or writing. I start in the morning, and, the next thing I know, it’s lunchtime. Drawn into the moment, I’m oblivious to the passing of time. But when I have finally awakened, I have a sense of peace. It makes me wonder if I have taped into a Buddhist nirvana without the benefit of meditation. Could that be possible?
I don’t think this fourth idea is limited to traditional forms of creation. Recently, Todd, a master plumber installed a saltless water softener in our home. It was no easy task. It required three valves and a dozen joints. But his job was seamless, dripless, flawless. When I admired the work, the plumber stepped back, placed his hands on his hips, and said, “You know, Allen, I think of my work as plumbing artistry.” He was right: it was artistry. And, in support of my theory, he added, “Sometimes time passes in a flash—and that’s good.”

Maybe this is why I loved reading Sapiens so much. I lost track of time for hours on end, and that’s good.

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Morality is key to understanding politics

The 2016 presidential election was a slugfest. At times the shouting was so loud, the shoving so brutal, we lost sight of who we were. When the last shots were fired and the smoke cleared, millions of citizens sat crumpled over their kitchen tables and asked, “What the hell just happened?”
            I was one of those morose citizens—baffled by the process and the outcome. My brain was a caldron of questions: Who are conservatives? Who are progressives? What does each party really stand for? I had some general ideas, but nothing decisive. That was remedied after reading the work of the American cognitive linguist, George Lakoff—especially his bestselling books Moral Politics and, more recently, Don’t Think of an Elephant. Here’s what I learned.

The conservative “strict father”
            First, Lakoff suggests that conservatives believe in the morality of a strict father—one who protects his family from the dangers of the world and teaches his children right from wrong. The father is the moral authority of the family. As such, when the children misbehave, it is the father’s responsibility to restore obedience. Ultimately, disobedient children are punished, while obedient children are rewarded.
            Second, the strict father believes in pursuing his own self-interests. He claims that his prosperity is good for both himself and everyone else.  That is the ideology of “trickle-down economics”: The poor benefit from the riches of the most wealthy.
            Third, once the children are obedient and thriving, they are set free to pursue their own self-interests. Because they have proven that they are mature, interference by an authoritative father—or a meddlesome government—is unnecessary and counterproductive.
            What are the ramifications of this model? Tax cuts for the wealthy and punishment for the impoverished. Consequently, what conservatives call “entitlement programs” are divested or, better yet, eliminated. Based on conservative morality, enabling dependency grants no favors to a needy populace.

The progressive “nurturing parent”
            The moral system for a liberal or progressive is entirely different. To begin with the metaphor—nurturing parent—is gender neutral. Lakoff defines nurturance as three things: “empathy, responsibility for yourself and others, and a commitment to do your best not just for yourself, but for your family, your community, your country, and the world.”
            Because nurturing parents empathize with their children, they want them to be happy and protected. Consequently, they promote an unpolluted environment, safe consumer goods, and fair wages. And, like conservatives, nurturants seek prosperity for their children, but with the understanding that opportunity drives prosperity.
            Finally, building community is a watchword for nurturing parents. As such, they routinely promote civil liberties, affordable health care, and educational equality.

What liberals need to learn from conservatives
            First, let’s set the record straight: All politics are based on moral paradigms. You may not agree with a party’s values, but there is no reason to shout down the opposition by labeling them as evil, criminal, or “a basket of deplorables.”
            That said, I’d like to explain what conservatives are doing right. For the last fifty years, they have funneled money from foundations and corporations into think tanks. Those think tanks have been very busy framing the language of their party in a way that is emotionally appealing to their constituents and less onerous to the moderate opposition.
            For example, they have learned to use Orwellian language that means the opposite of what it says. “Climate warming” has been replaced with “climate change,” which suddenly sounds more normal—a mere fluctuation in nature.
            Now, liberals have a thousand scientists and ten thousand facts to dispute the claim, but voters are not moved by facts. They are moved by values wrapped in emotion, which is why a conservative is now sitting in the oval office.
            Conservatives also think strategically. For example, why would tort reform—limiting lawsuit awards—be such an important issue for conservatives? The tactic is ingenious. Limited awards allow conservative corporations to pursue their interests with impunity. Placing the planet and its tenants at risk is inconsequential; their profits can easily handle minimal lawsuit awards. That strategy increases corporate profits, which, in turn, boosts contributions to the GOP.
            Multiply such strategic thinking a hundred times, and liberals are left spreading an ever-shrinking budget over an expansive landscape of critical community needs—with nothing remaining for long-range strategic planning.
            That’s the dilemma liberals face. And any relief they gain will be minimal unless they reframe their message and think strategically. But there is still hope, for it was another American linguist, the esteemed Noam Chomsky, who said, “If you assume that there is no hope, you guarantee that there will be no hope. If you assume that there is an instinct for freedom . . . , then there is a possibility that you can contribute to making a better world.”
            Here’s to a better world beginning at home: one acclaimed for its compassion, fairness, decency, and the freedom for all people—citizens and immigrants alike—to realize the American dream. 

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

An open letter to high school graduates

High school graduation is a month away. You’ll soon hear speeches about how precious you are—how gifted, bright, and unique—and how you can become whatever you want. Maybe you’ll believe it—maybe not. But if you were my son or daughter, I would offer an alternate message—one that I think is more realistic and, ultimately, more kind. Although the two are related, I’ve organized my counsel into two domains: personal and professional effectiveness.

Personal effectiveness
·         Get over the idea that you are special (despite what your parents and grandparents tell you). Yes, you are an amazing amalgam of bone, tissue, chemistry, and electrical impulses—but you are no more special than any other person on earth.
·         At commencement ceremonies, you may be exhorted to “follow your dreams.” But there is an unspoken caveat. If your dreams are to become rich and famous, you may have chosen poorly.  That might work for Paris Hilton, but those of more modest means have a greater challenge. A more noble and realistic choice is to live a principle-centered life—one dedicated to service. Make that happen and you’ll become morally richer and more famous than you ever imagined.
·         Don’t think that because you were inculcated to believe something—elitism, capitalism, materialism, religion—that it is, therefore, true. Observe, read, and be mindful. Then, over time—perhaps a lifetime—shape and reshape what is true for you.
·         When you have a choice between being right and being kind, choose being kind. Kindness is about spirit; being right is about ego.
·         Have a servant’s heart. That doesn’t mean being subservient. It means being empathic and ready to serve those in need.
·         You’re not that smart. In recent years, the average GPA of high school graduates has been on the rise, while college admission tests have remained flat. Bottom line: your high school grades are inflated. Stay humble; you still have a lot to learn.
·         Never stop reading. You will enter the minds of the brightest thinkers of all time. Nonreaders are doomed to reinvent the wheel.
·         Here’s how to become a member of an elite order: exercise. Eighty percent of Americans don’t get enough exercise. Exercise daily for at least thirty-minutes. Alternate between cardiovascular and weight resistance workouts. Neither requires membership to a gym.
·         Eat right. Fruit, vegetables, and water are your friends. Pizza, burgers, fries, and soda are not. And never eat a meal that comes with a toy.
·         Be curious. Say “yes” to new experiences, new cultures, new teachings. Learn a second language. Live in another country—a year or more is ideal—and soak in the culture. You’ll discover that the United States is grand, but not necessarily the center of the universe.
·         Remember this: Dogma divides and expels people; principles—love, peace, and understanding—unite them.

Professional effectiveness
·         Success in your college and/or work career comes from discipline and hard work and not because you merely exist. You want to shake up the world? Good for you. Now roll up your sleeves and get to it.
·         When your phone rings, answer it. It’s called civility. However, you rarely—if ever—need to answer your phone when you’re engaged in face-to-face conversation.
·         Don’t text when you need a favor or have bad news to report. It’s best to communicate such information in person or, at the very least, by telephone.
·         Understand the difference between what is urgent and important. Importance is driven by a personal mission and fuels your most noble ambition: to make a positive difference in the world.
·         Intimacy is not measured by the number of texts or “likes” you receive in a day. True intimacy can only emerge through transparent and empathic face-to-face dialogue.
·         Understand the difference between policy and mission. In any organization, a policy is designed to make life easier for the organization. Mission is about customer service. When serving the customer, mission—not policy—is the gold standard.
·         Don’t be deceived by Twitter. It takes more than 140 characters to flesh out a decent idea.
·         Don’t be duped by charlatans. Those who sound a little too slick probably are.
·         Contribute to community. Whatever your affinity—from artist to zoologist—experience the joy of sharing your knowledge with avid learners.
·         Don’t be afraid of diversity. All people have value.

So, there you have it, sons and daughters: wisdom from someone who is older than rock and roll music. Here’s hoping you’ll gracefully sidestep some of the foolishness that ensnared me along the way—and replace it with humility, mindfulness, and hard work. That will make you truly special.
Oh, and by the way, congratulations on completing the first stage of your apprenticeship on earth. Only a lifetime yet to go.