Monday, March 27, 2006

Yin and Yang of a Close Community

Yesterday, I was thinking about a quiet evening at home, but my wife announced that we had other plans. Saturday was the date of the Orleans Volunteer Fire Department ham and oyster roast. Volunteer departments are essential in areas and this one is well staffed with skilled retirees, including several retired CIA agents as well as 'locals'. There are two ham and oyster roasts a year, plus several breakfasts and other events. Fund raising is an ongoing activity.

At such events, like events at the local Ruritan Club, the Leeds Church Applefest, the house warming for our habitat house and the joint gospel sing, combining choirs from the three churches – one Episcopal; two Baptist – on Leads Manor road, one experiences community tangibly. Saturday night, at several tables, there were three and even four generations of the same family sitting together. People are cordial to newcomers, but it takes time to be accepted. There is a warmth and informality to interactions that is all-too-rarely encountered in Washington. Families are close, with several generations occupying the same pew at Leeds church. I experience the same – or even closer – ties in Colombo, Sri Lanka, where my connections to some families span nearly two decades.

I am not speaking of paradise. Close communities, too, can have their dark side. Families can know too much about each other, about dark secrets that are masked bright facades of cordiality. The Leeds Church parking lot is overfull during divine services. But it is equally full during the weekly meetings of Alcoholics’ Anonymous. People can be gossipy, critical and judgmental. The bonds that embrace, can also exclude.

Which is to say that close communities, like close families, mirror the yin and yang of the human beings that comprise them – and of the human condition.

Monday, March 20, 2006

A message that continues to inspire

Readers who read my blog, written earlier this evening, will have learned something of ‘Think Tank 30,’ the group of 30-35 year old women and men created under the auspices of the Club of Rome. Members of this group met with Dennis Meadows and me to learn systems thinking and system dynamics modeling at a workshop held in Portugal, last week.

At our training’s conclusion, they presented us with a book entitled ‘Letters to the Future.’ The Preface, written by His Royal Highness Prince El Hassan Bin Talal of Jordan communicates an important message about the group’s mission. Prince Hassan writes:

"At every stage of our life we are resistant to change, for truly we are creatures of habit. Going to university, getting married, accepting a job opportunity abroad… every decision we make along the way, when faced with alternatives, lands us into confusion and potential conflict with those who share a part of our lives.

A perfect world is but a dream. On his or her deathbed, any human being would forget rank and status, material possessions and past experiences of vexation and exaltation and would only call for loved ones. And yet still human beings resist change.

Our earth is being abused by deforestation and our oceans by contamination, and instead of becoming doctors, we are becoming soldiers. Instead of rescuing what we already have, we are demolishing what others have.

It is difficult to be 30. The past is bitter sweet and the future is yet undefined. However you still have the time to make the change rather than resist it. Express yourself, for freedom of expression is sacred and thought can only be corrected by counter thought.’

On your deathbed, when you call for your loved ones, you want the whole world to come to your side. Leave a trace by making your footprint that of a human not a soldier.

And Isidro Faine, Chair of the Spanish chapter of the Club of Rome writes:

"…when I think of the future, I do not see problems or possible solutions, but the hope of young people. They will give continuity to our desires, aspire to a world free from hate and war, where solidarity guides the action of science and economic activity so that all can enjoy the quality of human life without devastating the planet or the resources made available for rational human use. That is why I see a future full of hope and trust [because I believe] that all young people understand how necessary it is for them to be better than us."

Many of us who built the first global computer simulation models in the early 1970s, defining a new field of analysis and inquiry were motivated by the Club of Rome’s message. We were the age of today’s TT30 members, or younger. The message remains compelling and even more urgent today.

'Happy Birthday' in Four Languages

My Spring Break activity was joining with friend and longtime colleague, Dennis Meadows, to teach a one-week workshop on ‘Systems Thinking’ and System Dynamics (computer simulation) Modeling. Dennis is an old hand at workshop teaching, but mostly the one or two day variety. The format was relatively new to me, though I also had short trainings when I worked with The Hunger Project.

Workshop participants were 9 members of ‘Think Tank Thirty’ a group of young men and women, loosely affiliated with the Club of Rome. There were also four members from The Balaton Group, a network of environmental/sustainable development practitioner/policy-makers leaders about whom I have written previously. Six other participants had sought special permission to attend. At least 10 countries were represented in our group, including Syria, Jordan, Iran, Serbia and Japan as well as Brazil, the USA and several European countries.

TT 30 members range in age from 30 to 35; this is a distinguishing feature of the group. Thus, this age cohort was roughly comparable to the ‘tenure track’ faculty with whom I work regularly at American University.

What impressed me most about these young men and women was their idealism. They viewed issues of climate change, global oil depletion, conflict and sustainable development more generally as matters about which they compelled to take personal responsibility. Systems thinking and systems modeling were tools which, they believed, would help they to exercise that responsibility more effectively. Days were long and the work was intense. It was almost like a semester crammed into a week, with rare moments of ‘spare time’ often devoted to one on one meetings with participants.

Devoting a week of one’s time to supporting the commitment of such a fine group was not a difficult decision to make. Their passion and enthusiasm pushed Dennis and me to do our best. Passionate idealism is something I encounter regularly among my Anderson Hall ‘neighbors’ at American University. The opportunity to work with a group mostly in their thirties and older whose idealism has not dimmed, after a decade or more in the ‘real world,’ is inspiring, empowering and reassuring.

Last Thursday night we all dined at a traditional Portuguese restaurant in Peniche, near the hotel where we were working. At the end of the meal, much to my surprise, a cake, complete with two candles and a sparkler, was brought forth. How they discovered that my 68th birthday was the previous Sunday night, I cannot imagine.

To be serenaded with traditional birthday songs in four different languages was one of many high points in a most rewarding, productive week

Saturday, March 11, 2006

A family affair

Last Tuesday evening, the School of International Service sponsored an event to present and discuss my book, Paradise Poisoned . There were members of the Sri Lankan community in the audience along with graduate students who were familiar with my work. Most knew me and knew about the subject. I hoped this might be an opportunity for Anderson Hall students to come and see what I do when not cooking dinner or distributing candy during fire alarm evacuations (there was one last night, incidentally.) Sadly none came.

But it was a rewarding experience to share my book with friends and colleagues in the AU community. The discussants, too, were an Ambassador and an former Ambassador whom I knew well – for more than 15 years, in fact. So while the discussion focused on my book’s scholarship, it reflected some understanding of the context from which it emerged.

I sometimes describe Sri Lankan scholarship as a human scale activity, contrasting it with – say – Indian or Chinese scholarship. If I go to an event or social gathering in DC or in Sri Lanka I will likely know more than half of the individuals present. Obviously a close community such as this, like the small community of Leeds Church of which I have written, has its down side. We know a lot about each other. But in a fast paced, technology driven world, the positive contributions to my life of such communities far outweigh the negatives.

All family affairs have their pathologies, manifest and latent, but the world would be a sterile and lonely place without them.

We could have played a third set

As regular readers know, The Dean and I try to play tennis every Tuesday morning, though with a heavy travel schedule we often miss. He was in Dubai and India last week. This is being written from Amsterdam’s Schipol Airport, enroute to Lisbon. Last Tuesday was a bit cold, but basically a perfect tennis morning. Over nearly twenty years we have played together, we have remained almost perfectly matched, and we were on Tuesday, each winning a set. Were we retired, we almost certainly would have played a third, but perhaps it is for the best.

I have friends who have retired, with the expectation that they would be able to play tennis every day, if they chose, including a third set, but it hasn’t worked out that way. After a few weeks or a few months, there is a rotator cuff injury, or a hip injury or something. (This happens to professionals too, of course.) It is better to keep working and not play tennis to satiation.

Tennis is an important part of life, but there is more to life than tennis.

Monday, March 06, 2006

Learn About My Book - Paradise Poisoned, Tomorrow Night (March 7) in the AU Batelle Atrium

As Dormgrandpop readers will know, I finished my book Paradise Poisoned: Learning About Conflict Terrorism and Development from Sri Lanka's Civil Wars, last Spring. Tomorrow there will be an on-campus event to present the book to the AU community and discuss some of the issues it raises. What follows is a note I wrote to the Resident Directors of with a request that they transmit the message to the Resident Assistants and to AU students.

Next Tuesday night at 6 PM in the Battelle Atrium, the School of International Service will be sponsoring a forum focusing on my new book: Paradise Poisoned: Learning about Conflict Development and Terrorism from Sri Lanka’s Civil Wars. Speakers at the forum, in addition to myself will be Ambassadors Teresita Schaeffer and Ravinatha Arysinha. The forum will be hosted by SIS Dean Louis W. Goodman, who will also serve as chair.

One of my CTE colleagues, Maeve Reed, will be distributing publicity materials to the RA’s in the residence halls. I would be grateful if you would encourage your RAs to attend and to bring their students. If they do bring students from their floors, according to whatever threshold you have set, perhaps this could count as a program. It will give students another window on the professional life of a faculty member they know well, making them aware that “Dormgrandpop” writes more than write his blog, cook dinners, hand out Klondike Bars and distribute candy during fire evacuations (not to denigrate those activities, of course).

Ambassador Schaeffer directs the South Asia Program of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, assuming that position after completing a 30 year career in the Foreign Service. She served as US Ambassador to Sri Lanka from 1992 to 1995 and Director of the Foreign Service Institute from 1997 to1997. She has published extensively on South Asia, focusing in particular on political economic issues. She has served as an Adjunct Professor in SIS.

Ambassador Aryasinha is Deputy Chief of Mission at the Sri Lanka Embassy to the US in Washington, D.C. Previously, he was the principal spokesperson for the Foreign Ministry of Sri Lanka, and head of the South Asia Bureau of the Foreign Ministry. Before joining the foreign service, he was a popular television personality in Sri Lanka. He is completing a doctoral dissertation in SIS, focusing on the influence of diaspora communities on the foreign policy of host nations.

Issues relating to conflict, development and terrorism are matters of concern to many of our students. Tuesday nights’ forum will provide participants with an opportunity to learn about these issues from three individuals who bring a wealth of academic study, plus extensive personal experience to the subject and have close ties to American University.

Friday, March 03, 2006

Moving On

At last Sunday night’s dinner (made-from-scratch spaghetti) one of our group was a ‘regular’ who, as an Anderson Hall resident, came to her first dinner either late in her freshman or early in her sophomore year. Two closed friends often joined her but all of them now live elsewhere and they find it difficult set Sunday nights aside. Also, the topics of conversation among a group of predominantly first and second year students are less interesting than they once more. As the weeks of a final spring semester slip away a senior is more concerned with graduate school admissions, job applications, making decisions about relationships that may become logistically more difficult and other aspects of an awaiting ‘real world’ that loom ever larger. The university environment that once seemed so daunting has become, for many, the secure nest that ‘home’ once was, as they were packing for the first semester of their freshman year.

For those of us who have chosen “professor’ as a calling, the connections we make with a relatively few students who may call us ‘mentor’ are an important facet of a good life. (In my case these connections have also included young CTE staff members and young faculty). They speak to a human need that I believe is universal, to make a positive difference in the life of another human being.

But ‘moving on’ is essential part of the process, as it should be. Freshmen become seniors and they graduate. They may return to ‘the dorm’ but it is not the same. Ph.D. students complete their dissertations. Young faculty receive tenure and constitute themselves as mentors to others. Thus mentoring, for all its rewards, has a poignant quality. It gives meaning to a central Buddhist precept: impermanence. A young colleague who is both a graduate student and one of my most trusted staff members told me this as we concluded a meeting this morning: “really the only way you can repay good mentoring is to give the same gift to someone else.”

On the other hand, the rewards of mentoring are always there to be savored. Professors grow older, it is true, but undergraduates – my neighbors in Anderson hall – are perpetually youthful.

Thursday, March 02, 2006

A rich, energized campus

I have written before that about 6 AM each morning, the morning shift manager of CTE’s audio and video systems and services group calls me with a briefing of the days events on campus that require audiovisual services – which means most events. There are typically between 130 and 180 classes requiring AV services – 177 this morning, and events too numerous to mention. There are meetings of clubs, training sessions for employees, events with outside speakers, films, concerts and much, much more. One could fill up entire days, without leaving campus, just attending events.

When I was first hired by AU, the institution had a miniscule – almost nonexistent – endowment. Now, the level has risen from miniscule to modest. But Washington, D.C. might be viewed as a hidden endowment. If one pluck the institution from its Northwest Washington setting and moved it to the middle of Oklahoma (American University of Oklahoma) it would be a very different institution. Faculty and students arte drawn as much to the city as to the institution. With all the shortcomings in our governments – national and city - Washington DC remains, for some at least, one of the world’s best places to live. And it is home.

Notes often write themselves. I began writing about AU and wound up writing about Washington, though I rarely go downtown.

Time to wraqp up the day.