Monday, November 28, 2005

Putting up Christmas lights

On Monday evenings I hold ‘office hours’ in my apartment, from six to nine. Unlike dinners, study break hours, and distributing candy during fire alarm evacuations this has yet to become an institution. I have learned that such things take time. But it does get me out of the office at 6 PM rather than nine or ten, which may not be all that bad. Since I only had one customer, there was time to cook dinner and put of Christmas lights, Natural trees are not permitted and my apartment is not really big enough for an artificial one – and where would I store it the rest of the year. My surrogate ‘Christmas tree’ is a Sri Lankan ceremonial oil lamp which I keep festooned with lights throughout the year, turning them on when evening visitors come. Tonight, I added strings of white lights – my favorite – over the Angkor Wat rubbing and the window. Three electric candles adorn my kitchen window sill. I am not much into the material side of Christmas. The concept of ‘black Friday’ makes me a bit ill. But I have always enjoyed lights and still do. And when students come by they will be able to anticipate ‘going home,’ and important part of University life which helps them to survive the end-of-semester rigors of final papers, presentations and examinations.

I have been reading Tom Wolff’s I am Charlotte Simmons, which, as I mentioned in a previous Blog, my father loaned me. I am at the point in the novel where she is going home after a fall semester in which, in her naiveté, she experienced the worst of fraternity life and male callousness. Like many students, she is struggling with the problem of what to tell her parents, who now seem to inhabit a different world. She is disillusioned, frightened and depressed. I don’t yet know how things will turn out for Charlotte.

For virtually all university students there comes a time when ‘home’ is no longer a place of safety and refuge. It is simply a familiar place to visit as they move to new realities with which they must cope on their own. Often this happens shortly after graduation but the process of transition begins sooner. Facilitating this process is, of course, one reason parents send their children to university. But that does not necessarily make it easier for them to accept.

Sunday, November 27, 2005

This Thanksgiving weekend, I am thankful for...

As Thanksgiving weekend draws to a close, it seemed a good idea to compile a list of things that I am thankful for. Perhaps I will post it as a reminder for bad days.

· Good health – when we are sick, or have just recovered, we are consciously thankful. Other times we may forget. When our body is performing well, we may forget basic maintenance or even abuse it. I am thankful for good health and mindful that maintaining good health must be a priority.

· Sufficient income - Gandhi reminds us that ‘we have a enough for our needs, but not for our greeds.’ It seems as if major corporations invariably announce massive job cuts just before the Christmas holidays, as General Motors did this year. The announcements are invariably made by someone who is (a) not losing his job, (b) is earning a seven figure income and (c) speaks about the need to make ‘hard decisions’ which will mostly be hard for someone else. I am thankful that American University did not cut my job this year and in fact, the only job cut of which I am aware was at the top.

· Engaging, challenging work to do, mostly with people who are engaged, intelligent and idealistic – I am thankful for the opportunity to work at a university, and especially at American University. I am thankful for the diverse, committed group of human beings that are the Center for Teaching Excellence staff, for an equally committed and principled group of colleagues in the International Development Program and especially for my AU student ‘neighbors’ and friends in Anderson Hall.

· Some financial resilience – I am thankful not to be in debt and for having sufficient savings to cope with emergencies. To some degree at least, I know what it is like to be poor and at the effect of what seems to be an overwhelming mountain of debt. At age fifty, as a result of a divorce where I tried to make my first wife financially whole, I had negative assets (apart from a modest retirement fund that I could not access). I could not afford to furnish my rented apartment, apart from a couple of Japanese pillows (Zabutons). These circumstances preyed upon me, though many others were in far worse shape of course. Seventeen years later, there is some financial security, assets and resilience. The years of ‘not having’ motivate me to live more frugally, and to be thankful.

· Healthy children who seem well adjusted and fulfilled in the lives they are living – I am thankful that my children have defined themselves as human beings, enjoy good health and seem to take satisfaction in the lives they are living. I think of them as adults and friends. For the most part we do not seem to be burdened by the fact that they were once “children”: and I was once their “parent”. We enjoy our times together, and wish there were more of them, but are not dependent or needy. We are able to share the circumstances of our lives authentically and learn from each other.

· Opportunities to make a difference in the lives of others – I am thankful that responsibilities at American University gave me the opportunity to transform the working space of a new group of CTE staff members, the former Audio Visual Department and secure them compensation commensurate with the work they are doing. I was able to support one doctoral student in completing his dissertation and to help three others move forward with their work. I was able to help nurture the professional development of my staff and help provide them with a working environment that was empowering and fun. I was able to contribute, in small ways, to the lives of many students in Anderson hall, by sharing their experiences as a visible faculty presence.

· Completing and publishing, my book Paradise Poisoned - I am thankful that this eighteen year project finally produced a published book, which was well received by many that I respect. In particular, I am thankful that among many Sri Lankan readers who commented, publicly and privately, none accused me of bias toward a particular faction in the nation’s highly charged political culture or of disrespect.

International development scholar/practitioners, by the nature of the work we do, are particularly conscious of human suffering in the world. Events in Sri Lanka, Darfor, Palestine, Iraq, Zimbabwe and many other settings are a part of daily reality. Hopefully this makes me more aware of all that I have to be thankful for and more conscious of my obligations.

Does a sharp tongue leave lasting wounds?

“You drive like an old lady…!”

Does every family gathering include one: An individual who seems to take pleasure in using his or her sharp tongue as a rapier to wound others, with particular attention directed at those closest to them? For some unbeknownst reason, in my family, I seem to be the favorite object of one such individual’s thrusts, which are often struck at my most unguarded moments, not infrequently with other friends and relatives present to serve as an embarrassed audience.

In yesterday’s instance the cut was evoked by my offer to drive to an event for which we were late (My habit of driving the speed limit, unless really pressed, is a source of some amusement, especially among younger family members) But the object of scorn can be almost anything. It is the frequency of the rapier thrusts and the skill with which they seek out vulnerable targets, rather than any specific theme that is an ever-present reality. My natural response is to give such an individual a wide birth and to keep defenses up when we are together. But this is hardly basis for a healthy familial relationship. Another is to respond in kind, escalating an offhand insult into a full blown conflict over nothing very substantial. This, too, seems counterproductive.

In an unguarded moment, my relative once provided insight why sarcasm, contemptuous asides and not-so-veiled insults are such a routine element in her discourse, especially with those who are – or seek to be – close to her. He was not referring to himself, but the words rang true. “I guess it is a defense mechanism,” he said. “People use sarcasm as a defense mechanism to cover up vulnerability, to hide what they are feeling and to keep people from getting too close to them.”

So “does a sharp tongue leave lasting wounds?” To be fully armored against the wounds of my relative’s tongue, though I know his insults have little to do with real shortcomings, seems impossible. If fact to go through life perpetually armored (even if that were possible) must be unhealthy. But over time, with practice, reflection and counseling, I have come to recognize that only the most blatant attacks need evoke any response at all.

Perhaps only a saint could live his or her life fully according to the Apostle Paul’s admonition in his first letter to the Christians of Corinth: “Love… is not easily angered [and] keeps no record of wrongs.”

I am no saint, but I have learned that keeping a record of wrongs is harmful to mind, body and soul. Sometimes, my relative’s sharp tongue will inflict its intended wounds, but I can choose not to have the wounds be lasting.

Monday, November 21, 2005

A Weekend with my Father - 94 going on 95

Regular readers may recall that I regularly visit my father, who will soon celebrate his 95th birthday. He is exceptionally intelligent with an incisive mind and a quick wit. He is conservative but willing to listen to alternative points of view. He loves to argue and, having been a highly successful attorney, he usually wins arguments as he still does most games. He recently completed tom Wolfe’s new novel about life at a prestigious sports-oriented university (I think the model might be Stanford), I am Charlotte Simmons. This sparked a lively discussion about undergraduate sexual practices, a topic about which both of us had opinions, though neither of us are very well informed. For the most part, students are circumspect about discussing this part of their lives with Dormgrandpop.

We also began considering the disposition of family treasures, accumulated over a lifetime, that surround him in his small, apartment. Though he remains in good health, my father accepts the reality that at 94 going on 95, his future lifespan is foreseeably finite. Almost every artifact has a story attached, and we shared many of these with each other. There is the portrait of my great-great…grandmother on her Alabama plantation before it was burned to the ground by Union (Yankee) troops during the War Between the States. There are framed menus from crossings on the Queen Mary and Queen Elizabeth and from some of Europe’s great restaurants. There are the civil war epaulettes (possibly from an ancestor) that were mounted over the hearths’ in our many homes. There are the original Hogarth prints that my mother rescued from a New York antique shop and had framed to decorate the New York law office where father reigned as a senior partner. There are albums and albums of photographs, meticulously mounted and annotated by my mother, describing the rich life of an elegant sophisticated couple who raised four children, enjoyed each others’ company and lived well.

This collection of material things, over which my father still presides, has represented an anchor and point of reference (even during the long period I was estranged from my mother) for more than sixty years. Within the foreseeable future, it will exist only in photographs and memories.

Sad… but that is the nature of things.

Six Fire Evacuations in Two Weeks = Sleep Deprivation

Six fire alarm evacuations in the last 10 days or so have motivated me to reflect on sleep deprivation (as well as experiencing it). The 4 AM alarms are the worst and that is when most of them have become coming.

This evening, I Googled ‘sleep deprivation.’ Here is the first of many entries, this from

As final exams loom on the horizon, take a moment or two to Google sleep deprivation yourself. There is food for thought in sleep deprivation research that should be taken seriously (and especially by whomever is pulling the 4 AM alarms!!)

Sleep deprivation as bad as alcohol impairment, study suggests

September 20, 2000
Web posted at:
1:50 PM EDT (1750 GMT)

From staff and wire reports

LONDON (CNN) -- Night owls take note: new research offers yet another reason to get more sleep. In a study published this week in the British journal Occupational and Environmental Medicine, researchers in Australia and New Zealand report that sleep deprivation can have some of the same hazardous effects as being drunk.

Getting less than 6 hours a night can affect coordination, reaction time and judgment, they said, posing "a very serious risk."

Drivers are especially vulnerable, the researchers warned. They found that people who drive after being awake for 17 to 19 hours performed worse than those with a blood alcohol level of .05 percent. That's the legal limit for drunk driving in most western European countries, though most U.S. states set their blood alcohol limits at .1 percent and a few at .08 percent.

The study said 16 to 60 percent of road accidents involve sleep deprivation. The researchers said countries with drunk driving laws should consider similar restrictions against sleep-deprived driving.

The British Medical Association warned that there are other problems associated with sleep deprivation beyond impaired motor skills. People who get too little sleep may have higher levels of stress, anxiety and depression, and may take unnecessary risks.

And the dangers aren't limited to drivers. People who work long shifts or night shifts, such as medical personnel or other emergency workers, may also have troubles.

Friday, November 18, 2005

Life and Death on A Farm

I don’t live close to nature during weekdays, but looking out the window of my apartment, as I sit for quiet moments each morning, does make me conscious of the seasons. Three beautiful bushes are visible. They are now bright with fall coloring and will soon be bare. The onset of the fall season called to mind a column written by my friend the late Dr. Donella Meadows. The title was ‘Life and Death on a Farm.’

You don’t have to live on a farm very long before you come to terms with life and death, with all the Novembers when you kill last spring’s lambs and start next spring’s lambs. It is not that you become hard or unfeeling; rather you become accepting. You see life and death as a cycle or a continuum. You see that deaths are necessary for the balance of the farm, so that the ratios of rams and ewes and sheep and pastures will be right. You know that there will be beautiful meat to feed people, that not only the soil but all of nature turns death into new life, that in spite of all the death in the world, life persists. The whole process takes on a mysterious beauty and dignity. November, with its pervasive death isn’t the exciting high of April when the lambs are born and the daffodils bloom, but it’s the serene time of preparation for April; April couldn’t happen without it.

'Have I been a good man?' A concern evoked by Chris Salazar's death

I learned of Chris Salazar’s death last Sunday evening when I returned to campus. He had lost his balance, the news later reported, and died when he fell from the porch of his apartment. I had known Chris since he was a freshman and seen him mature, over four years. Last year he was an Anderson RA and President of the Senior Class. His picture appears in a collage of RAs on the door of my kitchen.

When a young person dies, my first thought is about his parents. Chris the second young person I knew well to have died in the past month. The other was a CTE staff member, for whom we have not yet finished grieving. Attending the funeral of a child, especially a personable and gifted young man of such promise, must be one of the saddest things a parent can do.

What I thought about next is how lucky and fortunate I am to be alive. Every man or woman living, which means we have survived adolescence, is probably lucky and fortunate to be alive. During the teens and early twenties we are learning about causes and consequences, often by trial and error. We take risks. I was not a hellion as a high school student, college student or young naval officer, but I sometimes drank too much, drove too fast, did both at the same time and took other unnecessary risks. After failing a doctoral comprehensive examination and during a turbulent time in my first marriage I gave suicide more than a passing thought. Some periods of my military service and of course my later work in Sri Lanka, were at least potentially life threatening. Some experiences were more than potentially life threatening.

That Chris and other young people, have died, and I am still here, evokes the question “what am I here for?” – “for what purposes am I still living and breathing on this planet?” "What am I be doing to justify my existence?" "Is it enough?"

Reflecting on this called to mind the last minutes of the Stephen Spielberg film “saving Private Ryan.” Private Ryan, now past middle age, walks with his family among the gravestones of those who had died ‘saving’ him during the Normandy invasion. He recals those men who died so that he might live. He turns to his family and asks,

“Have I been a good man?”

Monday, November 14, 2005

Do not fret

Do not fret (Psalm 37:1)

The passage introduces the October 10 reading in Streams of Devotion (L. Cowan ed,, Zondervan, 1997, pp. 382-3). I have quoted from this volume, with which I begin many of my days, before.

The Author continues: “…what does it mean to fret? One person defined it as what makes a person rough on the surface, causing him to rub and wear himself and others away. Isn’t it true that an irritable, irrational and critical person not only wears himself out but is also very draining and tiring to others? When we worry and fret, we are a constant annoyance…

‘Any physician can tell you that a fit of anger is more harmful to your system than a fever and that a disposition of continual fretting is not conducive to a healthy body. The next step down from fretting is being quick tempered and that amounts to anger.

'May we set aside it once and for all and simply be obedient to the command, ‘do not fret.’’

Sunday, November 13, 2005

So when should we forgive Ben Ladner?

So when should we forgive Ben Ladner?

This question was evoked by my blog on forgiveness and the answer is simple. We should forgive him at once – which is quite a different matter than holding him accountable or bringing him before the bar of justice, should that be called for. The point of my blog was that an act of forgiveness has little to do with the individual being forgiven and everything to do with making ourselves whole.

Reflections on the 'Town Hall' meeting with AU Board members

The last few weeks, culminating in last Thursday night’s ‘town meeting’ represent a sea change in the culture of AU’s once insulated Board of Trustees. Board members attempts at outreach cannot simply be dismissed, though this has been suggested by detractors, as a public relations effort intended to win sympathy for past misdeeds.

Here are things that stand out in my mind, three days later.

  1. Many board members have close ties to AU. Probably it was no accident that all of the Board members selected to participate in the open meeting, excepting the Methodist Bishop, were AU graduates. At least one – Pamela Deese – has been a scholarship student.
  2. The Board Members are a Diverse Group, with diverse perspectives and styles. Some were skilled in public relations and ‘spin’. They seemed most concerned with justifying their decisions. Others, not chosen as spokespersons, seemed more comfortable presenting themselves authentically, acknowledging the doubts and moral dilemmas recent events had posed for them. Clearly Board members were not unanimous in their decisions, though they felt compelled to present a ‘unanimous front.’ Personally, I am not sure the unanimous front stand was best, though I can understand the motivation for it.
  3. The messages from respective campus constituencies are getting through. I know that student organizers of Thursday night’s event were disappointed in the turnout. I thought it would be larger as well. But what needed to be said was said. What needed to be heard was heard, and had an impact. The meeting was scheduled to last an hour, but some Board Members were still dialoguing with their critics well after 10 PM.
  4. Issues of ‘governance’ and even whether to affirm or withdraw the severance package are more complex, and less easily to mobilize around than the simple imperative of terminating Dr Ladner. A majority of Board members had decided, in advance of the meeting, that providing Dr. Ladner with a generous severance package, and avoiding litigation was in the best interest of AU. Whether this decision was affirmed at Friday’s meeting I don’t know as I am writing. But clearly – and the meeting reinforced this – there are good arguments that can be supported by reasonable people on both sides of the issue. This will be true of ‘governance’ issues, such as the form of student and faculty representation as well.
  5. Cultural change takes time. In process is an attempt to radically alter of the Board of Trustee’s culture in the direction of transparency, accessibility and accountability. Faculty and students in anthropology and international development, among whom I am numbered, know that such processes take time. Personally I think a good start has been made,

Two images will remain in my memory, both from long after the formal discussions ended. The first was of Pamela Deese engaging in an animated, passionate discourse with a graduate student who had previously identified herself as a student in ethnics and pronounced herself ‘disgusted’ with her AU degree. The second was of an obviously fatigued Gary Abramson (who was not in the front of the room) listening patiently to a group of students and ignoring his wife’s obvious concern that he should have a good night’s rest before chairing the next days meeting. Finally, I intervened and suggested it was time to conclude.

All in all, it was a productive evening, if not an easy one.

Sunday, November 06, 2005

Why Forgive?

If you visit my office you will see on the wall over my desk a Newsweek Cover with the title “Why Forgive?” The picture is of Pope John Paul III sitting with Sirhan Sirhan, the young man who attempted – unsuccessfully – to assassinate him.

It is there to remind me about a rarely understood aspect of forgiveness. Forgiveness is, essentially, a selfish act that has much to do with the individual doing the forgiving and little to do with the individuals who are the object of forgiveness. We forgive to make ourselves whole, irrespective of the impact our forgiveness may or may not have on the one being forgiven.

Forgiveness is not about justice. Pope John did not ask that Sirhan be released from prison or be absolved from the consequences of his act. He simply freed himself from the burden of vengefulness.

An act of forgiveness also contributes to good Karma.

Why apologize?

A couple of days ago, I wrote about the bad Karma I created by insensitively failing to assist a colleague who was obviously in need of help. After writing that blog, I wrote him a note of apology. The blog I just wrote on forgiveness has lead me to reflect on apologies as well.

An apology differs from an act of forgiveness, but also has something in common. We forgive for harm that has been done to us. We apologize for harm that we may have done to another. Sometimes an apology can also be accompanied by an act of atonement – an act that corrects the harm or compensates for it in some way. I could not return to help my colleague but, in addition to apologizing, I promised to behave differently if similar circumstances arose in the future.

An apology may encourage someone I have harmed to forgive me, but I have no control over this. However I could, as part of the apology, request their forgiveness.

My mother was someone who accumulated slights in her psyche and rarely forgave. She cut herself off from her brothers, from her mother, from some of her grandchildren and, for twenty years, from me. After twenty years we had a conversation, which I will never forget, though I can’t remember what evoked it. For two hours she told me everything that had been wrong with my life since I had graduated from high school. By this time I was more than 40 years old, so here was quite an accumulation of hurts, slights and malfeasances, most of which I had not intended or been aware of at the time and didn’t even remember. Fortunately, I had, not long ago, completed the Est Traning, which gave me some coaching on how to deal with such an onslaught. I simply apologized and asked my mother if she could forgive me. At the time she said she wasn’t sure whether she could or not – but she did.

We were good friends for the remainder of her life.

Friday, November 04, 2005

Bad Karma

Buddhists believe that we bear the consequences of our deeds, if not in this life, then in the next. Good deeds add to our stock of good Karma. Bad deeds add to our stock of bad Karma. As some readers will know, accumulating good Karma is an institutional goal of the Center for Teaching Excellence. I believe we mostly do this and that it pays off.

Last evening was at the end of intense day, near the end of an intense week. It was a week of multitasking, addressing personnel and budget matters in CTE, playing a role (as an SIS Senator) in the ongoing discussions related to Dr. Ladner’s termination and participating as a principal in workshop on conflict and state building in South Asia, with a group of about 40 scholar-practitioners, mostly from the five South Asian countries we are studying (Sri Lanka in my case)

At about 8 PM, I was racing to my car, 30 minutes late for a diplomatic dinner hosted by the DCM of the Sri Lanka Embassy (who also happens to be my student) when I encountered a senior colleague. He has some difficulty with this vision and normally has a driver, but the driver had taken leave to attend a family event. My colleague was having difficulty finding a taxi, a task complicated by his poor vision. I offered some suggestions, but was clearly preoccupied. He said he would find a taxi on Mass Avenue and off I went to my function after spending about ten minutes with him.

What I should have done was to stay with him until he found a taxi or even given him a ride home. I might have been an hour late, but could have explained. I had an opportunity to reflect on this as I drove off and – obviously – this evening as well. It reminded me that when I an rushed, stressed, and preoccupied with ‘important matters’ it is easy to lose touch with my humanity, my values and what is fundamentally important.

I will pay a price for the bad Karma created that loss of perspective in this life or the next – and I should.