Saturday, April 22, 2006

Horatius at the Bridge

Reflecting on Ms. Mcclaren (the subject of my last blog) brings to mind a Junior High Project that my chess playing friend (he later completed an engineering PH.D. at Princeton and became research director of Bell Labs) undertook. We memorized the poem Horatious at the bridge (on of Thomas Babbington McCauley's "Lays of Ancient Rome" in its entirety. We were encouraged in poetry memorization by my father, for whom poetry memorization had been a school and parental requement.

The poem is quite long. It must take 30 minutes or more to recite. My friend and I walked to school for a number of weeks together. Each day we would recite as much as we had learned, one or more times and add a new verse. We stuck with the project and, in due course, achieved our goal. This feat of memory became a topic of discussion among students and teachers at Port Washington Junior high.

No good deed goes unpunshed. Having accomplished our goal, we now sought audiences to showcase our accomplishment. Parents and teachers felt they had to acquiesce. We recited the entire poem to our English class and exerpts not only at a Junior High assemmbly but at a high school assembly. There was an article in the school newspaper. And our poor parents felt they had to showcase our accomplshments at dinner parties and family gatherings. I am sure no one was more delighted than they, when we lost interest.

"Lars Porsena of Clusium, by the nine gods he swore
that the great house of Tarkquin would suffer wrong no more
by the nine gods he swore it, and named a trysting day
and bade his messengers ride forth, east and west and south and north
so summon his array."

I don't remember the entire poem, by much of it still remains.
If you would like a recitation, just let me know.

Miss McClaren - Are you up there ?

Looking at last Saturday night's posting "College Search Requires Mututal Maturity" (except that mutual was mispelled "mutual") brought to mind the image of my eighth grade English teacher, Miss Jeanne McClaren. Miss Mcclaren was one of many mid fiftyish teachers that I had in junior and senior high. Miss McClaren struggle with a wide range of students. As an eighth grader, my mother an inspirinig woman and probably a frustrated teacher was requiring me to read Benard de Voto's The Course of Empire and the Bronte Sisters novels as summer projects. A few friends and I were 'smart assess' - a trial to her and our slower classmates (some of whom would demosntrate their superiority by beating us up in the playground.

To relieve the tedium a friend and I played chess. Since we did not sit next to each other, we enlisted the aid of classmates in passing the chessboard from one row to the other - until one afternoon - it fell to the floor scattering chess pieces everywhere.

To avoid receving an 'unsatisfactory' grade in attitude, I had to do a week's penance after school, along with my friends. Which wan't bad. Ms. McClaren gave us interesting tasks and we developed a mutual understanding and mutual respect which sustained us through out the remainder of the semester.

She would not have been happy to see that I had posted a blog with a mispelled word in the title. And, of course, there were no spell checkers in those days.

Ms. McClaren, if you can read what I am writing, I am grateful for your dedication ande, as you can see, you teaching did make a difference to me. Thank you.

Saturday, April 15, 2006

College Search Calls for Mutual Maturity

Posted April 15, 2006
It has been a particularly beautiful week at American University, though the beauty of the blossoms on trees that adorn our campus always means, for me, a bout of allergies. Springtime brings not only cherry blossoms but throngs of prospective students and their parents. When I did the ‘college tour’ many years ago, I traveled with a friend. There were no accompanying parents and no tours, except the explorations we created for ourselves. Now college and university visits are a family affair. Touring groups are lead by “Ambassadors,” volunteer students who present the campus to prospects and parents from their own perspective, enriching their descriptions of buildings, programs and other highlights with personal experiences.

Viewing these groups motivates me to quote from a column with the same title as this blog, written my friend and sometime counselor Margaret, “Peggy” Treadwell. Peggy writes:

“Family stories often prove that the only thing worse than not getting one’s heart’s desire is getting it. The perfect university may prove too demanding or the last choice might provide ideal nourishment for the mind and soul. There are thousands of schools from which to choose. Principals, teachers and college counselors lament the attitude that there are only a few worth considering.

“So what if the envelope is thin, with disappointing news? Parents then have the divine opportunity to acknowledge God in the process by making sure their child hears unconditional love. This does not mean overprotecting them from pain but rather letting them have their own disappointment – its part of life – with the knowledge that you are walking along beside them as an affirming supportive fan.

Peggy concludes with the following passage from William Martin’s The Parent’s Tao Te Ching (William Morrow, 1999)

“Live your own life
With all your heart
With all your mind
And with all your soul.
There is no need to live theirs.
They will do that wonderfully by themselves.

Coping with a death - The Fable of the Ten Bulls

Posted April 15, 2006
As one ages, the death of friends becomes a more common experience and one may become more accepting, as one does with things familiar. When one reaches the age of my father, 95, virtually all of those who share the experiences of a full life – wife, college roommates, golf and tennis companions, professional colleagues – have died. “The 10 bulls” is a Chinese fable that I often include in letters of condolence. I wrote one last week, attempting to capture in few words something meaningful about the life of a good man. A commentary on the fable concludes, “The bull is the eternal principle of life, truth in action. The ten bulls represent sequent steps in the realization on one’s true nature.”

The fable, which I might have included in some previous blog, follows:

In the pasture of this world, I endlessly push aside the tall grasses in search of the bull.
Following unnamed rivers, lost upon the interpenetrating paths of distant mountains,
My strength failing and my vitality exhausted, I cannot find the bull.
I only hear the locusts chirring through the forest at night.

Along the riverbank under the trees, I discover footprints!
Even under the fragrant grass I see his prints.
Deep in remote mountains they are found.
These traces no more than be hidden than one’s nose, looking heavenward.

I hear the song of the nightingale.
The sun is warm, the wind is mild, willows are green along the shore.
Here no bull can hide!
What artist can draw that massive head, those majestic horns?

I seize him with a terrific struggle.
His great will and power are inexhaustible.
He charges to the high plateau far above the cloud mists,
Or in an impenetrable ravine he stands.

The whip and rope are necessary,
Else he might stray off down some dusty road.
Being well trained, he becomes naturally gentle.
Then, unfettered, he obeys his master.

Mounting the bull, slowly I return homeward.
The voice of my flute intones through the evening.
Measuring with hand-beats the pulsating harmony, I direct the endless rhythm.
Whoever hears this melody will join me.

Astride the bull, I reach home.
I am serene. The bull too can rest.
The dawn has come.
In blissful repose, within my thatched dwelling
I have abandoned the whip and rope.

Whip, rope, person, and bull – all merge in No-Thing.
This heaven is so vast no message can stain it.
How may a snowflake exist in a raging fire?
Here are the footprints of the patriarchs.

Too many steps have been taken returning to the root and the source.
Better to have been blind and deaf from the beginning!
Dwelling in one’s true abode, unconcerned with that without –
The river flows tranquilly on and the flowers are red.

Barefooted and naked of breast, I mingle with the people of the world.
My clothes are ragged and dust-laden, and I am ever blissful.
I use no magic to extend my life;
Now, before me, dead trees become alive.

Monday, April 10, 2006

The failings don't eliminate the possibilities

April 10, 2006
The following was written in a column by a friend, Elizabeth Sawin, who, I have often believed, speaks with the voice of the late Donella Meadows

I know the examples of our failings surround us. Our mistakes and missteps are so many and so clear that they don’t need mentioning. But the failings merely coexist with the possibilities, just as a two year old’s fib or a fifteen-year old’s recklessness co-exists with the possibility of the woman she could become. Factory farms don’t diminish the possibility displayed in a lush diverse, organic farm. The existence of bigots and haters doesn’t erase the example of lives lived in peace for the common good. The failings don’t eliminate the possibilities. Only ignoring the possibilities or deciding they are beyond our reach can do that.

A sharp, useful lesson in humility

The Malaysian Buddhist Scholar Narada writes, “average men are only surface seekers…material happiness is merely the gratification of some desire. No sooner is the desired thing gained than it beings to be scorned… Real happiness is found within, and is not to be defined in terms of wealth, power, honors or conquests…This first truth of suffering, which depends on this so called being and various aspects of life is to be carefully analyzed and examined. This examination leads to a proper understanding of oneself as one really is."

Not long ago, I received word that that gratification of a long-held desire might be granted (I cannot provide the specifics). I immediately began hoping this would happen. Soon afterwards, the hope was snatched away. The manner in which this was done left me feeling ‘disrespected’ – that is, demeaned and insulted.

Did I accept this as a reminder that ‘real happiness is found within and is not to be defined in terms of wealth, power, honors or conquests?’ Sadly the answer is no. For a time, I was consumed with the slight and the feelings of resentment that came unbidden and, despite by best efforts, persisted. Even now, my equilibrium is not fully restored.

This was a reminder that I remain a very ‘average’ person. First, I was consumed by my feelings of resentment; then by shock and disappointment at my own weakness.

It was a sharp - and useful – lesson in humility.

Some good news and bad news for newspaper publishers

April 9, 2005
Last Monday or Tuesday The Washington Post ran an article about the use of blogging by university faculty members. A quotation from Dromgrandpop concluded the piece. That posting recounted a discussion about reestablishing the draft and legalizing Marahuana that took place at a recent Sunday night dinner. I concluded with the observation that ‘my eyelids were drooping’ – which they were, too, last evening as I wrote this. None of my more profound observations on love, death, forgiveness ort the meaning of life made the cut, however.

What interested me was the number of colleagues who called my attention to the article. The included most of my several Office of Intformation Technology staff members and a couple of faculty. Many are still reading the Post, obviously,

The good news for publishers was not unalloyed, however. The demographics of those noting the article did not include any students or others under 30 years of age.

A visit from Interim President Kerwin

April 9, 2006
Earlier this week, Interim President Kerwin paid a visit to the 3rd floor ‘Honors Lounge’ Anderson Hall. He arrived, without entourage, about 8 PM, for a mostly question and answer session that lasted until about 9:15. The event was somewhat sparsely attended – only 9 students turned out on a busy end-of-semester Tuesday evening - but other students noticed and appreciated that Dr. Kerwin had taken the time. “This is a novel experience at AU,” one student friend remarked to me, “the President is taking time to talk with students.”

Once students got the idea that Dr. Kerwin would either answer their questions directly or simply say that he wouldn’t, discussion was lively. Some questions focused on the duties of the President. A student wanted to know if President Kerwin would consider the AU Presidency permanently (he said it was too soon for him to make that decision). There were questions about the clean energy initiative and even about how late night fire alarm pulls could be reduced or eliminated on the South side of campus.

The next morning I ran into one of my student staff-members who had attended the session. “What did you think of President Kerwin and his presentation,” I asked?

“He seemed humble and practical,” was the reply.

Monday, April 03, 2006

The hubris of Andrew Card's schedule

(April 3, 2006)
Among the many articles commenting on the resignation of President Bush’s Chief of Staff, Andrew Card, was a brief piece about his schedule. According to the writer, Mr. Card’s normal routine was to arise at 4:10 AM and ‘continue taking calls’ until eleven PM. He had maintained this killing pace for the past five years. What kind of capacity for creative though and reasoned judgment could this schedule have fostered?

If physiology and psychology tell us anything, they remind us that we are physical beings as well as mental (and political?) ones. These are interlinked, mutually dependent elements of a single system. Ignoring our physical being degrades our mental capacities.

I claim no moral high ground in this matter. My typical day begins at 6 AM (with Ron’s AV briefing, for regular readers) and rarely ends before midnight. But the decisions I may are of small moment, compared with those entrusted to Mr. Card and now to Joshua Bolton, his successor.

I would encourage Mr. Bolton to make fewer decisions with the hope that he might make better ones.

What is the purpose of life?

(3 April 2006)
This morning, I finished reading The Buddha and His Teachings, which I purchased in Sri Lanka, some months ago. The book was first published by the Buddhist Missionary Society of Malaysia in 1942 and updated in 1988. It’s concluding passage answers the question, “what is the purpose of life?”

"In the opinion of a Buddhist, the purpose of life is Supreme Enlightenment, i.e. understanding oneself as one really is. This may be achieved through sublime conduct, mental culture and penetrative insight; in other words, through service and perfection.

"In service are included boundless loving kindness, compassion and absolute selflessness which prompt human beings to be of service to others. Perfection embraces absolute purity and absolute wisdom."

Saturday, April 01, 2006

Experimenting with my new IPOD

(April 2, 2006)
It was only a matter of time until I ordered one – an IPOD that is. The Center for Teaching Excellence ran a ‘podcasting’ conference last fall that was surprisingly well attended. More than 70 faculty showed up on a Thursday morning. Podcasting lectures is clearly a genre that is in tune with the lifestyle of today’s students. And it provides an opportunity to review complex technical materials and then review them again. I hope to begin creating the basic elements of system dynamics modeling in 4 – 6 minute podcasts complete with video support. Perhaps I will podcast my book as well.

Though my reputation is a bit geeky, I do not rush to adopt the latest technology. I am realistic about the transition time and my own learning curve associated with a new platform or gadget. When I chose to switch from a Windows to a Mac platform, I know this would be followed by weeks or months of struggle, especially given the complexities of AU 1990s era software, Lotus Notes. There have been and many remain unresolved despite unstinting personal attention given me my dedicated OIT staff members.

But my IPOD was up and running in an hour and now, while writing about the experience, I am reveling in the sounds of the Choir of Kings College, Cambridge coursing through my stereo headphones. Ever since I was I small child, I have loved classical music – especially choral music, German opera and organ music., and much more in point of fact.

Podcast computer modeling modules may be a few weeks away, but in the interim, there will be an opportunity to reconnect with music that has been an important part of my life but from which I have drifted away. Perhaps I will background my lectures with the Beethoven 9th Symphony, the Bach Toccata and Fugue in D minor and arias from Mozart’s Magic Flute.

Keeping up with an old friend

(From March 27, 2006)
I first met ‘John’ when the two of us were about two years old. Both of our parents were beginning their lives with very modest incomes. Our friendship was, first of all a matter of convenience. Neither family could comfortably afford baby sitters. Trading off was a a more economical option when one couple or the other wanted a night out or a weekend off. We shared ambitious projects, including one to dig through the earth to the center and out the other side. Our discussions explored the engineering of this feat in considerable detail (we were about five years old). Interestingly both of us included engineering in our subsequent careers, he as an inventor and me as a computer modeler, briefly as an engineering professor and now as an IT manager. When I visited him, I could read comic books, forbidden by my parents. My mother, on the other hand was less draconian about discipline and personal cleanliness (though, as a mother of the 1940s she was draconian enough).

Our birthdays were close – his on March 20th mine on the 12th, which may provide one reason why we have kept up, though our lives have followed somewhat different paths. For a number of years now we have at least checked in with each other around our birthdays and when ‘John” comes to Washington, we occasionally visit.

This year we only spoke over the telephone, he from California and I from Washington. Both of us are still working, the only two among our immediate friends who have not retired. He has eight grandchildren, his three daughters all live close by with their husbands, making family gatherings possible. My two children, one stepchild and four grandchildren are farther afield. Perhaps this is best since a traditional grandmother role would not be my wife’s cup of tea.

Surprisingly, he as given up tennis – he was on the team at Princeton as I recall. I continue to play. I sent him a copy of my latest book, which he had not seen. Our conversation ranged over topics from the profound (life and death) to the trivial (how we are coping with the vicissitudes of aging).

Keeping up with old friends is worth the effort, though I am not particularly good at it. Many of the experiences we share no longer have any reality, apart from that which exists in our common recollections.