Thursday, April 28, 2005

Take a late night study break and schmooze with dormgrandpop in person

This is for AU students, especially on the South Side.

Tonight, and Monday and Tuesday Night (I have a late final Wednesday) dormgrandpop hosts a late night study break in his apartment, 101 Anderson Hall. There will be coffee, tea, cookies, soft drinks, Mountain Dew, Coke/Pepsi and the usual freezer full of Klondike Bars, Nestle Crunch Bars, Drumstucks, etc. We begin at about 10:45 and wrap up about midnight.

Some residents like to hang out and talk with me and other students for a few minutes - last night we talked about international politics and contrasting Jewish and Christian perspectives on Deism, but often topic are less profound - like summer plans.

But there is no requirement that you stay and talk at all. Simply stocking up with energy sustaining supplies for yourselves, roomates and friends is just fine.

Best of luck with those last term papers and finals !

Monday, April 25, 2005

Coaching System Dynamics Modelers: Rewarding and Evocative

Among the most rewarding things I do is teach a 500 level (advanced undergraduate and graduate) course in System Dynamic modeling. This technology uses computer simulation to capture relationships between, for example, population, resources, ecology and political-economy. Students become learn the technology/theory by creating a model of their own that represents complexities of a research question they have chosen. Three sets of questions being investigated by this semester’s students are:

What explains patterns of inflation in Turkey over the past quarter-century; will Turkey be able to attain the degree of economic resiliency and robustness necessary to qualify for admission to the European Economic Community?

How can relationship between the formation of gangs in Rio de Janeiro’s favela communities and homicide rates among the 15-24 age cohort of young men best be explained; how can this understanding best contribute to policies that can more effectively reduce homicide rates?

What are the crucial factors that explain the spread of HIV/AIDS in Zimbabwe? Does sexual behavior in Zimbabwe represent one of these crucial factors? What policies should have been implemented in the past to curb the epidemic and what should the government do now?

This evening, I spent more that two hours helping a project team to think through the structure of their model. At the end of the semester, I will often spend twenty hours or more in such coaching. There is no more rewarding educational enterprise – bright students and a faculty member working together, sharing a commitment to high standards in a common enterprise; stretching their intellectual and creative resources to the limit.

Years ago, building computer models was almost a full-time professional activity – and passion., Now I am mostly a technology manager and, hopefully, technology leader and facilitator. When I work with students on their models, I rediscover skills and talents that I exercise all too rarely. This is exciting and gratifying.

Occasionally, I wonder if what I am doing now is what I should be doing.

Sunday, April 24, 2005

“Living in the moment” as the academic year draws to a close

Let’s face it. There is no more intense time at American University (probably most universities) than the two or three weeks culminating in final examinations and, for seniors, in commencement. It is a joyful time of the year, but can also be a stressful, exhausting one.

Juxtaposition of multiple obligations, from social systems not much linked to one another makes time a particularly precious resource. Consider the demands, obligations, and opportunities…

…faced by all students
Completing term papers and capstones; possibly four our five of them
Studying for and completing final examinations
· Attending the “end of year” events of every organization to which one belongs, each of them wanting to celebrate and commemorate
· Breaking or loosening intense ties with friends/lovers
Packing up and organizing a move – what to do with all that “stuff” one has accumulated
Reconnecting with an redefining one’s relationship with parents (try to remember that this can be a stressful, exhausting time for them too)

…and for seniors, all of the above, plus
The uncertainties of transitioning to a new way of life
Looking even more seriously at the intense ties of the past year or years
Seeking the appropriate ways to celebrate the last moments of undergraduate life and resisting (or not) the temptation to celebrate too much.
· And much more….

What has impressed me most, in more than three years as an Anderson Hall resident, is the maturity, good humor and multitasking skills of most students and especially as the academic year concludes I I have little advice to offer – my own two graduations, when I received my BA and PhD, were both wrenching family crises, leaving few happy memories.

Zen Buddhist masters are particularly skilled at “living in the moment” – totally immersing themselves in the experience of each moment, completing it and then moving on to the next moment. Each moment is a lifetime, unconnected to the one that preceded it.

This practice is difficult, but may offer a useful model as the end of the academic year looms upon all of us.

Saturday, April 16, 2005

Learning about "T Ball" in Hume, VA

On this spectacularly beautiful spring morning, I was returning from a walk to the Hume, Virginia, Post Office, when I noticed a game in progress at the local Ruritan Park. (“Ruritan International” is the rural equivalent of the Lions, Rotary and Kiwanis “service clubs” that predominate in urban and suburban settings.) The setting of the ball field, in the Shenandoah foothills near my country home, is picturesque. On a hillock beyond right field is the Ruritan Club’s picnic pavilion, decorated with fading green paint. Center field hosts bright yellow, orange and green plastic playground equipment. Down the left field line, also on a hillock, are the immaculate white buildings of Hume Baptist Church, where three starkly beautiful wooden crosses (about the size on which Jesus might have been crucified) greet parishioners arriving for worship services. Reflecting traditions of segregation that have now mostly faded, this is Hume’s “white” Baptist Church. The “Negro” Baptist Church, architecturally similar in most respects, is a mile or so down the road. This morning, the grass was a vivid green in the bright sunlight and adorned with yellow dandelions and purple violets growing wild.

…But about “T Ball.” Two local teams, the “Hillcats” (green jerseys) and the “Blazes” (blue jerseys) were contesting. Each team had eleven players, aged roughly between four and six years. Gender was mixed, though with boys predominating and all the coaches seemed to be dads. A scattering of parents, grandparents, and passers by like me stood or sat on the grass watching. T Ball gets its name from the fact that players hit the ball of a batting T rather than receiving a pitched ball to hit (which means hits are much more frequent). I queried a mom and dad standing next to me and they filled me in on the other rules. Each team bats around each inning, no matter how many outs are made. Score is not kept. There are no winners and losers, only winners. Enthusiasm, is sufficient to be rewarded with cries of “good job” by coaches and spectators – and everyone is enthusiastic. T Ball raises an interesting philosophical question. In order to be a “winner” is it necessary to have a “loser?”

Tomorrow afternoon, I will be helping to orchestrate technical support for Monday’s meeting of the U.S. Commission on Electoral Reform, chaired by two respected political leaders, former President Carter and former Cabinet Secretary (State and Treasury) James Baker. The Commission has an important agenda, comprises important members, and will, no doubt, do important work. I regard this opportunity to contribute to its success as an honor. Yet like most Washington enterprises, the Commission’s processes will include elements of pretentiousness, posturing, inflated self-importance and invidious hierarchical distinctions.

The T Ball game between the Blazes and Hillcats, nestled between Hume’s Baptist Church and Ruritan Pavillion, this spring morning, was refreshingly free of such elements.

Home is the Sailor Home from the Sea

Among my favorite poems, written by my favorite poet, A.E. Housman (1859-1936) is the following:

Home is the sailor, home from sea:
Her far-borne canvas furled
The ship pours shining on the quay
The plunder of the world.

Home is the hunter from the hill:
Fast in the boundless snare
All flesh lies taken at his will
And every fowl of air.

'Tis evening on the moorland free,
The starlit wave is still:
Home is the sailor from the
The hunter from the hill.

I still remember how powerfully these verses came to mind when I returned to my parents’ home on Sands Point, Long Island after my first navy deployment as a 4th class midshipman on the battleship U.S.S. Wisconsin. The deployment was like a boot camp at sea, often arduous, painful and demeaning – as boot camps are intended to be. I can remember how secure and safe I felt entering the precincts of my parents’ gracious and elegant home, late in the evening. This despite the fact that as a teen ager and young adult, times spent with my mother, a brilliant, vivacious woman, but of mercurial temperament were often contentious and unhappy. (My father, who I have come to know much better as an adult – he is now 94 – was, then, mostly in the background).

I was reminded of Houseman’s poem today as I turned to my country “home” on Faquier, after a month long separation engendered by a two week trip to Sri Lanka and a two week long nearly immobilizing bout with bronchitis. Like my parents’ home the precincts of this dwelling place are gracious, elegant and, in their physical setting, tranquil.

Couples who face periodic separations, due to work, travel, or military obligations must cope with an ongoing process of adaptation and re-adaptation. Those of us who served in the navy, with extended times at sea, are particularly familiar with the challenge. The two elements of the “couple” grow apart and become independent. The ties biding them together may be as much a matter of commitment (“until death do us part” ; “so long as we both shall live”), convenience and financial need as of affection, intimacy and mutual respect. Reestablishing the bonds that once brought them together takes work, “quality time” and a commitment to give and take. But the strength and temperaments that make independent living possible, in the face of separations, make rebonding more difficult.

In my mind, Housman’s concluding verse captures a universal yearning – of sailors hunters; of all of us – for a home of peace, tranquility, intimacy and unconditional acceptance.

But note that Housman, characteristically, ends his poem on that note of yearning. He omits a concluding verse that might have described what life was like for his sailor and hunter when they actually returned home.

Thursday, April 14, 2005


Because Anderson Hall is the largest of AU residence halls, it has a staff of 21 Resident Assistants, plus a live in Resident Director (my next door neighbor on the first floor) and me. Each week, we gather for staff meetings. For three years these meetings were held at 11 PM, a time that fit with everyone’s schedule, but did keep us up quite late. At mid year we acquired a new Resident Director who moved the meetings to 8:15. I enjoy staff meetings and try to attend all of them, although the revised time slot made that more difficult. They are a time to connect with all of the RA’s, many of whom I have come to know quite well and, at times, helped with a variety of problems as a readily available, informal advisor.

The last staff meeting on the year is devoted to “closing”. As I sat through the details of room check-out, refrigerator defrosting, assessment of damages, “check out” and the like, I was counting back. My first “closing” was in the spring of 2002; I moved into Anderson January of that year and went through my first RA orientation and training. So this closing was my 4th; I had gone through this process more than anyone else in the room. Most of the Resident Assistants in the room had been freshmen. The Resident Director who was giving instructions – this was her first “closing” – had been eighteen or nineteen years old when I first moved into Anderson.

It would be hard not to have some feelings of “Venerability” not only being the oldest person in the room, but the probably the oldest resident of Anderson hall.

But ‘venerability” is a state of mind rather than being measured by the passage of time. In fact, I feel more invigorated, more aware, more in touch with new cohorts of residents than I did four years ago. Each year I am saddened by the departure of old friends among graduating seniors and the RA community. But I know that come September, there will a new cohort of freshmen with whom to experience “moving in”, Sunday night dinners, end of semester study breaks, office hours and even early morning fire alarm evacuations.

In the rhythm of University life, May is a time of completion and August is a time of renewal. How many callings provide such opportunities for renewal, growth and discovery. I have four years worth of Anderson Hall residents as well as many other students, and my talented student-staff members too, for providing me the gift of such opportunities.

I am deeply grateful… and thankful.

Monday, April 11, 2005

Guidelines for fulfilled and happy living - from my daughter

My daughter sent me these guidelines for fulfilled and happy living the other day and suggested I share them with others. Sharing them is also supposed to bring me good luck. (Well, it should help accumulate positive Karma, at least). According to her message, the originated with the Anthony Robins organization. As some of you may know, Anthony Robbins is a charismatic and popular motivational speaker.

ONE. Give people more than they expect and do it cheerfully.

TWO. Marry a man/woman you love to talk to. As you get older, their conversational skills will be as important as any other.

THREE. Don't believe all you hear, spend all you have or sleep all you want.

FOUR. When you say, "I love you," mean it.

FIVE. When you say, "I'm sorry," look the person in the eye.

SIX. Be engaged at least six months before you get married.

SEVEN. Believe in love at first sight.

EIGHT. Never laugh at anyone's dreams. People who don't have dreams don't have much.

NINE. Love deeply and passionately. You might get hurt but it's the only way to live life completely.

TEN.. In disagreements, fight fairly. No name calling.

ELEVEN. Don't judge people by their relatives.

TWELVE. Talk slowly but think quickly.

THIRTEEN. When someone asks you a question you don't want to answer, smile and ask, "Why do you want to know?"

FOURTEEN. Remember that great love and great achievements involve great risk.

FIFTEEN. Say "bless you" when you hear someone sneeze.

SIXTEEN. When you lose, don't lose the lesson

SEVENTEEN. Remember the three R's: Respect for self; Respect for others; and responsibility for all your actions.

EIGHTEEN. Don't let a little dispute injure a great friendship.

NINETEEN. When you realize you've made a mistake, take immediate steps to correct it.

TWENTY. Smile when picking up the phone. The caller will hear it in your voice.

TWENTY-ONE. Spend some time alone.

Saturday, April 09, 2005

This I believe - a site that is worth checking out

About fifty years ago, the late Edward R. Murrow, one of our most respected news commentators and, in a different era, head of CBS news, created a program entitled This I Believe. It began as a daily radio program, in which famous Americans and citizens who had not gained fame presented their beliefs in radio essays of less than five minutes. In the words of the revived program’s website “…eventually, the radio series became a cultural phenomenon. Eighty-five leading newspapers printed a weekly column based on This I Believe. A collection of essays published in 1952 sold 300,000 copies -- second only to the Bible that year. The series was translated and broadcast around the globe on the Voice of America. A book of essays translated into Arabic sold 30,000 copies in just three days.”

The new edition’s producers are now collecting new essays which are being broadcast on NPR and will be posted on the program’s website. There is also an opportunity for any one to contribute an essay.

Writing a short essay entitled “this I believe” that would be a useful exercise for anyone. Dormgrandpop will draft and post his essay shortly.

Check out the project’s website at

Here are brief excerpts from the series, two from the old (Harry Truman and Hellen Keller) and one from the new (Isabelle Allende.)

Harry S. Truman
The ethics of a public man must be unimpeachable. He must learn to reject unwise or imprudent requests from friends and associates without losing their friendship or loyalty. I believe that our Bill of Rights must be implemented in fact; that it is the duty of every government -- state, local or federal -- to preserve the rights of the individual.

Isabelle Allende
Give, give, give -- what is the point of having experience, knowledge or talent if I don't give it away? Of having stories if I don't tell them to others? Of having wealth if I don't share it? I don't intend to be cremated with any of it! It is in giving that I connect with others, with the world and with the divine.

Hellen Keller (A serious illness deprived her of sight and hearing when she was a very young child. Her early years are described in the film The Miracle Worker. She later became an acclaimed writer, lecturer and social commentator.)

It was a terrible blow to my faith when I learned that millions of my fellow creatures must labor all their days for food and shelter, bear the most crushing burdens, and die without having known the joy of living. My security vanished forever, and I have never regained the radiant belief of my young years that earth is a happy home and hearth for the majority of mankind. But faith is a state of mind. The believer is not soon disheartened. If he is turned out of his shelter, he builds up a house that the winds of the earth cannot destroy.

When I think of the suffering and famine, and the continued slaughter of men, my spirit bleeds. But the thought comes to me that, like the little deaf, dumb and blind child I once was, mankind is growing out of the darkness of ignorance and hate into the light of a brighter day.

Being sick. Not fun. Not interesting. And a warning

My note on “being thankful for small things” was appropriate, but premature. The malady I have contracted is a bit like a guerilla adversary. It lures you into a resumption of normal routines with a false dawn of wellness, only to mount a new and devastating assault of fever, coughing and immobility. Tuesday night, bathed in my own sweat, I dragged myself off to Kaiser’s Urgent Care (a great service incidentally) and learned that my malady has a name, bronchitis. Also that this is what is “going around” and that if untended, it morphs into walking pneumonia. I was given a much needed dose of antibiotics and other medicines. My home remedies were doing nothing more than masking symptoms and sustaining a fragile, deteriorating equilibrium.

So if any readers have been coughing and wheezing for a few days, especially with running eyes and occasional bouts of fever, seek professional medical advice at once. This is not a time for “mind over matter” (my usual mode) especially with term paper due dates, final exams and for some, graduation looming.

My wife is a strong proponent of the stress theory of disease. She told me this morning with my book Paradise Poisoned completed after fourteen years of writing, my body simply felt it could let its barriers down.

Being sick for days hasn’t been much fun, except for the support and concern of friends, staff and Anderson Hall neighbors, Moreover, reading about the travails of illness and forced immobility probably isn’t all that interesting. But there is no requirement that every blog be a literary masterpiece.

Tuesday, April 05, 2005

Focusing Mind and Body

(Note - posting of this blog was temporarily halted by the ultimate early-morning distraction: an AU South Residence Hall Complex fire alarm evacuation.

Jet lag has its points. When I awake at 2:30 in the morning (after thanking my body for working more or less reliably) I have to do something. Here is a personal variant on a Buddhist meditation exercise which, like most such exercises, is intended to clear the mind of extraneous thoughts. It is great for a sleepless hour, as alternative to a film on long international flights, during the passage of time between when your doctor’s nurse told you to show up for an appointment an when she (the doctor) actually sees you – for almost anytime.

The exercise is not complicated. There are only three elements.

  1. Sit or lie in a comfortable position. If you need to move, stop the exercise and do so, being conscious of that experience very briefly and then letting it go. Continue with the other parts of the exercise.
  2. Beginning at 100, count slowly and silently backwards to zero. As you count, visualize each number.
  3. After each visualization, take two slow breaths – in and out; then consciously pause; then visualize the next number.

If you are like me, you will be amazed at how difficult it is to actually complete the process, when I first started the practice, I almost never, succeeded. You will become aware of how permeable our minds are to distractions, even in a meditative environment and despite our best efforts. This may be why we derive such satisfactions for activities that do focus our minds, engaging both mind a body totally; that exclude the constant “chatter.” Among such activities are demanding athletic competitions when one is “in the zone”, an intense research/creative activity like computer modeling, an intense conversation with a loved one, a sexual encounter that totally engages both mind and body, listening to a great orchestra play a later Beethoven symphony or a superb organist play the Bach Toccata and Fugue in D minor.

Our world is far more filled with distracting elements than in simpler times. I wonder if the emergence of ever more demanding “ultra” sports and engulfing entertainments (rap music; ‘action’ films) is an expression of our yearning for those special moments of total focus and our inability to reach within ourselves to attain them.

Givng thanks for small things

When we are not sick, we don’t fully appreciate being well. This morning, when I awoke at 2:30 – Jet lag is still a part of my life – I had a realization. My breathing was unimpeded. I could lie, relaxed, without the urge to cough every five minutes. I gave a silent prayer of thanks.

I give thanks for unimpeded breathing

I give thanks for an entire hour with out coughing

I give thanks for two and a half hours of uninterrupted sleep.

Perhaps one reason for adversity and illness is as a reminder to appreciate some of the small things in life – like the reliable functioning of that incredibly complex system, our biophysical being.

Monday, April 04, 2005

A Lesson in Humility

April 4 – 4:05 AM. Yes it’s 4 in the morning. I am wide awake and coughing.

Jet lag has never been much of a problem for me, even though my usual travel destinations are South Asian and the time difference is a whopping ten or eleven hours. In fact, I have, in the past, constituted myself as an knowledgeable expert on coping with the problem. Sleep on the plane, with ear plugs, rather than watching a film. Eat and drink lightly. Stop over in London if time permits. Don’t take a long nap on the day you arrive and, in particular, take the magic anti-jet lag tablet, Melatonin. These nostrums enrage my wife for whom jet lag is a problem and who particularly dislikes smugness.

This trip, nothing has worked. I returned to Washington six days ago. Tonight has been the typical pattern. To bed near midnight, exhausted and wide awake at 2:30, with my mind racing and thinking about how miserable I will be the rest of the day. Flu – or flu like symptoms – is certainly part of the problem. As soon as I wake up I start coughing. And then there is my Blackberry alarm, programmed to play the opening bars of Mozart’s Eine Kleine Nachtmusic, loudly, 4 times. It was set to 2:30 AM, my departure time for Colombo airport, and it has taken me this long to permanently turn the damn thing off. Each night I have stumbled about in the dark, groping for the offending device, which can be in various rooms and pockets. When I finally track it down, I press the “dismiss” button, in which case my reprieve lasts until 2:30 the next morning or, even worse, the “snooze” button which provides a 15 minute reprieve. “Don’t turn the light on,” I say to myself, “then you’ll never get back to sleep.”

Well, this will be a great time to answer some email and referee that paper for the International System Dynamics Conference that is two days overdue. Maybe tomorrow, I’ll get a decent night’s sleep.

And I promise that I will never be smug about jet lag again!

"Down for Maintenance Until 7 AM"

So much for my plan to read email, referee that paper and plan my day. AU's Lotus Notes System is down until 7 AM. And, of course, I forgot to replicate my data bases before turning in. No calendar; no email; no to do list. Sometimes I schedule Blackboard maintenance in the wee hours at the end of a weekend, so I shouldn't complain. But it is frustrating.

Time to sleep again, orm failing that, perhaps a Zen meditation exercise. Impermanence is one of life's realities.

A new day awaits.

Saturday, April 02, 2005

Aging, Dying and Death

I doubt that aging, death and dying are topics most dormgrandpop readers probably spend a lot of time thinking about, but for some reason, I was particularly conscious of them on my recent trip to Sri Lanka. Possibly this is because two of my oldest friends, Kingsley and Douglas, are being felled by the aging process. A third, Peiris, like my father, continues to live a full life with considerable vigor.

And then, today, there was the opportunity to experience the very public death of Pope John Paul II. The many tributes to which I listened all emphasized the vigor of his early years, the frailty of his last years and how he likened the sufferings of his last illnesses to Christ’s suffering on the cross. I have been immobilized by my fourth winter cold, which has imposed time for thinking and reflecting, in contrast to my more typically frenetic life style,

I will not write of Pope John Paul, others will be doing so at great length and more eloquently. But I will write something of my more unheralded Sri Lankan friends.

Douglas’s aging has been the most painful to share. On the walls and surfaces of his modest home are pictures of the vigorous man he once was. He was a respected senior government civil servant. He rode horseback. He successfully competed in long distance walking competitions into his 70s. He was a voracious consumer of Sri Lankan and world news, which he organized and stored in voluminous files. Visiting his home is a “must” stop on most of my trips to Sri Lanka and I spent part of the morning with him last Saturday, Seven years ago he injured his back. There are no chiropractors in Sri Lanka and this seriously limited his mobility. Then, is eyesight began to fail; an operation made things worse.

For nearly four years, he has been blind and immobile, the perimeters of his life shrunk to his chair and his bed. Douglas recently celebrated his 90th birthday, but he may not have felt there was much to celebrate. He no longer listens to the radio or books on tape. His memory is failing. He is depressed and has a right to be. Yet a vigorous constitution, the legacy of a vigorous life, keeps his heart beating and sustains others basic biological functions. His devoted wife, age 84, cares for him. He nom huddles on his bed, in a fetal position, looking like an elderly newborn, waiting for time to pass and for the end. The bed – and his room – are immaculate.

I read a very few passages from my recently completed book, especially my acknowledgement of his contributions. Clearly, he knew who I was, though he sometimes doesn’t remember his children and grandchildren. His wife, once a physically beautiful woman, is careworn, but soldiers on, sustained by determination and occasional visits from their children. They have been married nearly seventy years. She is still beautiful, despite her frail body and wrinkled face, She is an embodiment of love – and duty.

Spending time with Douglas and following John Paul’s dying process in the news, I cannot help but wonder what my own dying process will be like. I have long been a member of the Hemlock Society. It takes its name from the poison given to Socrates, following his conviction for “corrupting the youth of Athens”. Members support the idea that the right to end one’s own life is a fundamental right. For John Paul and many American religious conservatives, this view is anathema. For the latter group, using the power of the state to impose their views on everyone is a priority,. How John Paul chose to use dying as one more expression of a life lived by faith has caused me to reflect. This is, no doubt part of what he intended.

I not queried Douglas on this matter, though years ago his views would have been insightful. I wonder what he thinks, but philosophical discussions are beyond his capabilities.

Perhaps I will write more about my other Sri Lankan friends in another blog.