Saturday, September 30, 2006

How democracy in Rome was weakened, following a terrorist attach

The following was sent to me by a friend and influential public policy consultant who lives in India.

Published: September 30, 2006
Kintbury, England
Anthony Russo)

IN the autumn of 68 B.C. the world's only military superpower was dealt a
profound psychological blow by a daring terrorist attack on its very heart.
Rome's port at Ostia was set on fire, the consular war fleet destroyed, and
two prominent senators, together with their bodyguards and staff, kidnapped.

The incident, dramatic though it was, has not attracted much attention from
modern historians. But history is mutable. An event that was merely a
footnote five years ago has now, in our post-9/11 world, assumed a fresh and
ominous significance. For in the panicky aftermath of the attack, the Roman
people made decisions that set them on the path to the destruction of their
Constitution, their democracy and their liberty. One cannot help wondering
if history is repeating itself.

Consider the parallels. The perpetrators of this spectacular assault were
not in the pay of any foreign power: no nation would have dared to attack
Rome so provocatively. They were, rather, the disaffected of the earth: The
ruined men of all nations, in the words of the great 19th-century German
historian Theodor Mommsen, a piratical state with a peculiar esprit de

Like Al Qaeda, these pirates were loosely organized, but able to spread a
disproportionate amount of fear among citizens who had believed themselves
immune from attack. To quote Mommsen again: The Latin husbandman, the
traveler on the Appian highway, the genteel bathing visitor at the
terrestrial paradise of Baiae were no longer secure of their property or
their life for a single moment.

What was to be done? Over the preceding centuries, the Constitution of
ancient Rome had developed an intricate series of checks and balances
intended to prevent the concentration of power in the hands of a single
individual. The consulship, elected annually, was jointly held by two men.
Military commands were of limited duration and subject to regular renewal.
Ordinary citizens were accustomed to a remarkable degree of liberty: the cry
of Civis Romanus sum I am a Roman citizen was a guarantee of safety
throughout the world.

But such was the panic that ensued after Ostia that the people were willing
to compromise these rights. The greatest soldier in Rome, the 38-year-old
Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus (better known to posterity as Pompey the Great)
arranged for a lieutenant of his, the tribune Aulus Gabinius, to rise in the
Roman Forum and propose an astonishing new law. Pompey was to be given not
only the supreme naval command but what amounted in fact to an absolute
authority and uncontrolled power over everyone, the Greek historian
Plutarch wrote. There were not many places in the Roman world that were not
included within these limits.

Pompey eventually received almost the entire contents of the Roman Treasury
144 million sesterces to pay for his war on terror, which included building
a fleet of 500 ships and raising an army of 120,000 infantry and 5,000
cavalry. Such an accumulation of power was unprecedented, and there was
literally a riot in the Senate when the bill was debated.

Nevertheless, at a tumultuous mass meeting in the center of Rome, Pompey's
opponents were cowed into submission, the Lex Gabinia passed (illegally),
and he was given his power. In the end, once he put to sea, it took less
than three months to sweep the pirates from the entire Mediterranean. Even
allowing for Pompey's genius as a military strategist, the suspicion arises
that if the pirates could be defeated so swiftly, they could hardly have
been such a grievous threat in the first place.

But it was too late to raise such questions. By the oldest trick in the
political book the whipping up of a panic, in which any dissenting voice
could be dismissed as soft or even traitorous powers had been ceded by the
people that would never be returned. Pompey stayed in the Middle East for
six years, establishing puppet regimes throughout the region, and turning
himself into the richest man in the empire.

Those of us who are not Americans can only look on in wonder at the similar
ease with which the ancient rights and liberties of the individual are being
surrendered in the United States in the wake of 9/11. The vote by the Senate
on Thursday to suspend the right of habeas corpus for terrorism detainees,
denying them their right to challenge their detention in court; the careful
wording about torture, which forbids only the inducement of serious
physical and mental suffering to obtain information; the admissibility of
evidence obtained in the United States without a search warrant; the
licensing of the president to declare a legal resident of the United States
an enemy combatant all this represents an historic shift in the balance of
power between the citizen and the executive.

An intelligent, skeptical American would no doubt scoff at the thought that
what has happened since 9/11 could presage the destruction of a
centuries-old constitution; but then, I suppose, an intelligent, skeptical
Roman in 68 B.C. might well have done the same.

In truth, however, the Lex Gabinia was the beginning of the end of the Roman
republic. It set a precedent. Less than a decade later, Julius Caesar the
only man, according to Plutarch, who spoke out in favor of Pompey's special
command during the Senate debate was awarded similar, extended military
sovereignty in Gaul. Previously, the state, through the Senate, largely had
direction of its armed forces; now the armed forces began to assume
direction of the state.

It also brought a flood of money into an electoral system that had been
designed for a simpler, non-imperial era. Caesar, like Pompey, with all the
resources of Gaul at his disposal, became immensely wealthy, and used his
treasure to fund his own political faction. Henceforth, the result of
elections was determined largely by which candidate had the most money to
âbribe the electorate. In 49 B.C., the system collapsed completely, Caesar
crossed the Rubicon and the rest, as they say, is ancient history.

It may be that the Roman republic was doomed in any case. But the
disproportionate reaction to the raid on Ostia unquestionably hastened the
process, weakening the restraints on military adventurism and corrupting the
political process. It was to be more than 1,800 years before anything
remotely comparable to Rome's democracy imperfect though it was rose

The Lex Gabinia was a classic illustration of the law of unintended
consequences: it fatally subverted the institution it was supposed to
protect. Let us hope that vote in the United States Senate does not have the
same result.

Unconditional love and a dilemma of the rich, powerful and beautiful

There is a line in the St Francis prayer that I was thinking about this morning. “…for it is in loving that we are loved.” My friend, the late Donella Meadows had a passage in a letter she wrote me about how we can create the people around us as lovable. Judith Wallerstein’s book, ‘The Good Marriage’ has this moving passage in its introduction: 'In our fast paced world, men and women need each other more, not less. We want and need erotic love, sympathetic love, passionate love, tender, nurturing love our entire adult lives. We desire friendship, compassion, encouragement, a sense of being understood and appreciated, not only for what we do but for what we try to do and fail at.’

It may be that giving love is the best way to receive it, but I think that seeking love and trying to make ourselves lovable is a fact of life for most of us. Moreover we seek that rarest of all gifts, unconditional love. Unconditional love is that which is freely given because of ‘who we are’ at some deep level.

I never experienced unconditional love in a deep way, from another human being, until I was about 50 years old, and then only briefly. It was a lifetime powerful experience, never to be forgotten. Deeply religious people report that they experience the unconditional love of God in this way. I consider myself religious. I take time for prayer and quiet reflection most days. But I mostly accept God’s love as an abstraction rather than a deeply felt reality.

Rich and powerful, people, in my observation, have the same need for unconditional love as the rest of us. The enterprises of philanthropy and ‘development’ derive their technologies of fund raising from this principle. But the rich and powerful seem often to be plagued by doubts that they are simply loved for their money or their power rather than for ‘who they are.’ One way rich people deal with such doubts is to marry someone as rich as themselves. It strikes me that many physically beautiful people, especially beautiful women may face the same problem.. Fame, beauty and powerful management or political posts may offer adulation and sucking up. But these are poor, transient substitutes for unconditional love.

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

A death threat and a parent's prayer

I mostly write about the positive side of life in Anderson Hall because that is what I mostly experience. Even fire alarm evacuations – there have been mercifully few this fall – have their positive side. There is a certain South Side bonding that this experience of shared misery creates. But dorm life has its dark side too. Yesterday morning, AU’s student newspaper, The Eagle, greeted us with a front page banner headline. Students had tried to smuggle a keg of beer past the Anderson Hall front desk in a duffle bag. Later, Resident Assistants had broken up a raucous, alcohol fueled party in the adjoining dorm, Centennial. Names were taken and incident reports, which are the first step in a disciplinary hearing, were filed.

But this was not the end of it. Later, a death threat was written on the white board on one resident assistant’s door. Later still, the resident assistant was awakened by a sound at the door. A written death threat had been tacked there with a sharp knife. District of Colombia Police were called. An investigation has been initiated. Hopefully, it will not only lead to expulsion from the university, but more severe sanctions.

In my four plus years of Anderson Hall living, this was a first. But it is hardly a surprise that seventeen to twenty-two year old men and women sometimes exercise egregiously bad judgment. They become preoccupied with the excitement of a moment. They are swayed by the bad judgment of their peers. Their human sensibilities are clouded by drugs, alcohol or physical passions. They act without regard for risks and long term consequences. And most often, they pay the price. I can remember many instances when I drank to excess and took potentially life changing risks. Fortunately I survived these most perilous - and most exciting – years of my life without irreparable harm.

That is what parents pray for. Mostly, our prayers are answered, but not always.

Sri Lankan Curry Night

Sunday night – 10:30 PM

We just finished dishes and cleanup from our second Anderson Hall Dinner – Sri Lankan chicken curry, dhal, and a white curry with carrots, snow peas and cashews. Twelve students came, and our conversation provided an example of why American University is such an interesting place to work --- and live. Among them, there were three international students, one from Lithuania one from Canada, and one from South Korea. Other countries with whom students had ties included Hungary, India, Trinidad, China and others I can't remember.

Two weeks ago, on the first Sunday night of the semester, our conversations lasted until after 10:30. But this week, everyone said their good-byes before 10. Classes have begun. There are reading assignments to be completed, notes to be reviewed and papers to be written.

Friday, September 22, 2006

International air travel to Hungary: not so bad, after all

I was not looking forward to the air travel part of my recent trip to Hungary, via Frankfurt. In fact, contemplating the prospect of it depressed me. The news of draconian new search procedures seemed to ensure that unpleasant experiences lay ahead. Parts of my summer trip to Sri Lanka, especially flying on United Airlines and negotiating London’s Heathrow Airport were painful.

My worries were unfounded.. I arrived early for flights and lines were short. My bags and travel vest, filled with computer, printer, USB hub, camera and the transformers, plugs and connectors necessary to make them work, sailed through scanning machines without incident. Ticket agents, security screeners and passport control officials were pleasant and efficient. I was particularly impressed with the efficiency of German security officials in Frankfurt Airport.

I flew on Lufthansa, experiencing quite a different level of service than that provided by disorganized and dispirited United Airlines staff members on my last flight. I was particularly impressed that the Purser chose to serve passengers in economy class.

My worries probably did lead to more proactive planning and scheduling. This may have contributed to a positive outcome. I am rethinking how I should frame my next flight. Probably anticipating the best, but also preparing for the worst is a good strategy.

Guidelines for an effective presentation, which my Balaton meeting presentation mostly ignored

The final day of Balaton Group meetings, as members are preparing to depart, is often a time of reflection. What worked and didn’t work during the meeting; what should be the topic of the next meeting; who should be new members; how can subsequent meetings be made better? People come to the meetings for networking and catching up with old friends, but there is a formal program as well.

The theme of this year’s meeting was ‘leverage points.’ In system dynamics modeling (the sort of modeling I do) a system leverage point might be defined as a point in the system where an intervention can be made to produce a desired result most cost effectively. To ask a question about leverage points is to ask ‘where can the greatest beneficial changes in system behavior be effected with the least effort possible. Introducing new information in a system, creating a negative feedback hoop that changes a decision process would be one example.

My task was to provide a presentation on how ‘systems thinking’ could contribute to understanding the ‘information economy’ and to identify leverage points that could help catalyze sustainable development. My presentation fell so far below the standard I set for myself it embarrassed me and, no doubt, my listeners.

Coaching students on effective presentations is part of every class I teach. My guidelines are straightforward. Here are the most important.
1. Careful preparation – and rehearsal – is essential.
2. The time budgeted for preparation should be longer – far longer = that then time for delivery.
3. Short presentations require more careful preparation than long ones
4. Know your audience and include them, empathetically, in your delivery. Use language and examples that communicate your message – to them!
5. Develop between five and ten clear, focused conclusions. State them at the beginning, develop them, and then reemphasize them at the end.
6. If questions are to be part of the presentation, leave time for them.

I was preoccupied with other meeting activities and failed to follow most of these guidelines, with predictable results..

Some other presentations, too, fell short of this standard and, in our post meeting evaluations, I pointed this out. But I was unconscious of the hubris these comments must have communicated.

My assessment should have begun by looking in the mirror.

Monday, September 18, 2006

Reflections on the Ownership of Ideas and the "Knowledge Economy"

Reflections on the Ownership of Ideas and the ‘Knowledge Economy’
American University, like many similar institutions has a “University Club” where faculty, senior staff and advanced graduate students meet over lunch to relax, socialize and share ideas. Part of the club’s culture is several ‘commons tables’ where members who have come to lunch alone can sit down and join in whatever discussions are in progress. Several days ago, I walked up to one of the commons tables where several colleagues and a stranger had just seated themselves. When I asked, with perfunctory politeness, ‘may I join you,’ the stranger reacted with an expression of obvious distress on his face. “I don’t feel comfortable having join us,’ he said, ‘we are here to discuss a business plan, involving proprietary information.’ (If you hear what I discuss, there is some chance you will steal my intellectual property, possibly using it for your own financial gain, was the obvious implication.)

I was angered by this abrupt dismissal, in a cultural context where I was normally accorded respect, but I did understand. As ideas are increasingly codified in reproducible media that can be transmitted by accessible websites, email, podcasts and the like, the ownership of ideas – of intellectual property – has become an increasingly vexing topic.

For a well compensated senior faculty administrator such as myself, “ownership” of ideas is an ethical issue, but not a matter of financial viability. University faculty members, especially, those who teach in elite graduate programs, are professionally obligated to share ideas with students and a wider community. I fully acknowledge that this position is a privileged one, perhaps undeserved.

One should not conclude that faculty members are Simon pure, of course. As director of doctoral studies, I dealt with several instances where faculty members appropriated students’ ideas as their own and took credit for them. But this became a widely known blemish on their professional reputations as well as a learning moment for the students impacted.

This issue comes again to mind in the Balaton Group context because on the fourth day of our meetings we will attempt to grapple with issues, opportunities and challenges posed by new information dissemination modes that have been broadly categorized as ‘the new media.’ Because of my responsibilities for AU’s New Media Center and my contact with undergraduates as ‘dormgrandpop,’ I am much aware of this new genre. I have been urging Steering Committee members to explore its implications. As the Balaton Group has not been known for embracing economists’ worldviews, the title chosen for this day four session was an interesting one, “The Knowledge Economy.”

Views that the Balaton Group should become a more visible presence on the web and in other multimedia venues raise challenging questions for a group in which the ‘free exchange of ideas,’ in an affirming environment grounded – more or less – in shared values has been a strong, but not fully examined norm. What ‘value added’ should be ascribed to the collective ‘knowledge’ that meeting discussions – formal and informal – generate? If that ‘knowledge’ produces significant economic benefits, to whom and by whom should those benefits be distributed. Should the norms that govern such transactions be made explicit, or left implicit, as heretofore?

Our day four discussions should be evocative, challenging and perhaps require some soul searching.

Sunday, September 17, 2006

Balaton Group 2006 - First Day

This year’s Balaton meetings celebrate the group’s 25th anniversary. In recognition of this milestone, the texture of the meetings is somewhat different. Normally, the size of the meeting is limited to 50. The constraint is intended to allow every participant to dialogue with every other – for an hour or so – if they choose to do so. This year, our ranks have been swelled by a number of older members, no longer professionally active, who have participated significantly in the Group’s history. Our numbers, too are somewhat greater.

This is also a meeting when the process of transitioning to leadership, begun last year, is continuing. For many years Donella Meadows was the ‘source’ of the Balaton Group. When she died, her place was taken by Dennis Meadows, her former husband. At last year, there was a ceremonial passing of the torch – orchestrated by Dennis – to a newly elected steering committee. But Dennis continues to be the dominant force and principal facilitator of the meetings, though the program was largely shaped by others.

The theme of today’s session was “The Biomass Ecnomy”, with presentations on “Water as key Resource,” Managing transitions to sustainable forestry (In Bolivia) and a new approach to participative modeling. Later, there were opportunities to dialogue, in small groups, with individual speakers. This was followed by individual workshops on special topics.

Innovative and communitarian though the Balaton Group is, it is still subject to some of the disfunctions of other meetings. Speakers can speak a bit too long, leaving less than planned time for discussion and for their own conclusions. There can be a predisposition to fill every moment with events, leading to negative synergy, where the whole is somehow less than the sum of the parts.

But one must always assess a reality not against an ideal, but against other alternatives. As meetings go, the annual Balaton gatherings may approach the ideal most closely. There is a distinctive culture, that has evolved over 25 year and a special chemistry among members that sustains it.

Friday, September 15, 2006

The Balaton Group 2006

This week, I am attending meetings of the Balaton Group, in Hungary. What I wrote about the group last year still seems pretty much appropriate. The text of last years posting follows.

The Balaton Group - A Resilient Affirming Network that Empowers its Members
"Whatever their form, [networks] are made up of people who share a common interest in some aspect of life, who stay in touch and pass around data and tools and ideas and encouragement, who like and respect and support each other.( from Limits to Growth: The 30 Year Update, (2004), p. 275)

For the next several days, I will be writing about the annual meetings of The Balaton Group, which is the familiar name for the International Network of Resource Information Centers (INRIC).Though 20 so individuals, including myself, could claim the title of ‘founding members’ – we attended the first meeting – the group was primarily the creation of two "Limits to Growth authors, Dennis and Donella Meadows.

Networking is one of four keys to a sustainable development transition that they identify (the others are visioning, truth-telling, learning and loving).This is the group’s 24th meeting. Today, Dennis Meadows (Donella died prematurely in 2002) gave the traditional introduction to the group’s history, values and culture for new members. What he said might puzzle organizational traditionalists and professional ‘human resources’ practitioners, whose institutional-cultural culture is quite different.

The Balaton group has no defined purpose, Meadows emphasized, other than to support its members by helping them to succeed. It has almost no formal organization andrelatively few resources.It is norm that group members do not list ‘The Balaton Group’ on their resumes.This year’s attendees were from 22 countries. Only 4 were Americans, all of whom work internationally.

Among the group are international consultants, heads of centers and institutes, government ministers and department heads, media specialists, cartoonists, a small number of professors – all of whom work extensively outside universities – foundation officers and NGO heads.As Dennis Meadows emphasized, members derive their ‘stature’ not by the groups to whom they belong by but what they have accomplished. They have written major books, raised hundreds of thousands of dollars, shaped government policies, recontextualized global and regional issues.Their work has impacted the lives of millions of individuals all over the world. The network has contributed in demonstrable ways to many of these accomplishments.Members sustain the network because they like one another support one another and are ‘decent, honest, smart people.’ They share a more or less common set of values about how institutions should function, how human beings should relate to one another and how the human race might evolve towards a symbiotic relationship with the Planet Earth that sustains it. Some call this ‘sustainable development.’

For many members, including me, Balaton meetings provide a humane, reaffirming and reinvigorating oasis.The meetings compel us to reexamine our priorities and clarify what really matters to us. They enable us to return to day-to-day responsibilities with renewed confidence that what we are doing has value, is worth fighting for - even passionately – and can make a difference. Everyone needs that sort of periodic reexamination and reaffirmation, from time to time, to sustain them. Networks, like the Balaton Group, can provide it.

Perodic humility dosings: some political leaders could use more of them

Periodic humility dosings: some political leaders could use more of them!

About 12:15 last night, as I was in the middle of packing for an eight day trip to Hungary, the fire alarm gong began its incessant, intrusive ringing. Cursing, I filled up my candy bowl with a fresh supply of Reese cups and “Rolos” and went out into the night. It was the last thing I wanted to do.

But there is value in the fire alarm evacuation experience I T reduces moments of life to a fairly elemental level. One experiences of humility A bell summons us to stand in the dark. One must then pass the time somehow (for exapmle, by handing out candy) until the crisis is past. Other parts of life – including packing for an ‘ important’ international trip – are involuntary brought to a halt.

I think it would be useful for Presidents, George Bush, Vladimir Putin, Robert Mugabe and other world leaders to be periodically summoned for fire alarm evacuations as well as having to do their own laundry, ironing, grocery cleaning and toilet scrubbing. They are freed from these mundane responsibilities by virtue of the important and far reaching responsibilities attached to the positions they hold. But there is a danger. Men and women freed too long from mundane responsibilities often develop an inflated sense of self importance. They may begin assuming that they, themselves, are some special breed of human being, permanently elevated above the ranks of ordinary men and women.

A corollary of this inflated sense of importance can be closed mindedness to views other than their own and an unwillingness to be open to the most important thing a leader needs to know, “bad news.” Often it is not the leader who is harmed by the hubris that such closed mindedness creates, it is hapless employees of the organizations they lead or hapless citizens of the countries they lead.

Bush, Putin and Mugabe are among many leaders who could benefit from a dose of humility. Perhaps an occasional fire alarm evacuation or periodic toilet scrubbing responsibilities in Presidential living quarters would help.

Monday, September 11, 2006

Honoring former AU Provost and Interim President, Milton Greenberg

The Greenberg Seminars are an innovative series of workshops, spanning three years, that are intended to prepare AU students in terminal degree programs (PhD and MFA) for teaching. They are the brainchild of a remarkable AU ‘public servant,’ former Provost and Interim President, Milton Greenberg. Dr. Greenberg almost always attends the opening reception for the program he founded and it is one of my most pleasant duties of the year to welcome him. Here is this year’s welcome.

Now, about our former Provost and interim President, Dr. Greenberg. To speak about his past would do him injustice, because he is always looking to the future. Before attending this opening reception, I always read some of his columns and op-eds.

Americas Colleges should rank themselves
No time for teaching: is the academic year too short
Lame ducks, the scourge of academic administration
So you want to be an administrator

"In the university is not a business and other fantasies," he writes: Students with instant communication tools expect their faculty to be available instantly. This opens fantastic opportunities for new forms of interpersonal relationships and for collaborative learning on campus, off campus, among faculty and students on several campuses , and anywhere in the world.

In writings and speeches, always with a distinctive mix of idealism, realism and sharp humor, Milton Greenberg constantly exhorts and cajoles us to catch up with him.

One recent Greenberg article is subtitled: if you seek credit praise, love and appreciation, leadership is not for you.

This afternoon, I would like to welcome Milton with a paraphrase: If you seek credit, praise, love and appreciation, this event is for you.

Sunday, September 10, 2006

Reflections on the fifth anniversary of "9-11"

My experience of 9-11 is different than that of most Americans. When the Twin Towers and Pentagon were bombed, I was in a remote area of “upcountry” Sri Lanka, completing my book, Paradise Poisoned: Lessons about Conflict, Terrorism and Development from Sri Lanka’s Civil Wars. I first heard the news from my host as I was leaving the house for an early morning walk. My fist reaction was disbelief.

In Sri Lanka, bombings were part of daily life. Three weeks earlier, half of Sri Lankan Airlines passenger jet fleet – six Air Busses – had been bombed on the runway of the international airport. My first reflection was that America was now experiencing what my Sri Lankan friends had, for years, come to accept as part of their daily lives. My principal news sources for many days were short wave broadcasts from Voice of America and the BBC. Later I was able to watch contrasting accounts of unfolding events on India and Pakistan television outlets from my room at the Police barracks guesthouse in Chandigarh, the capital of India’s Punjab Province.

In the immediate post ‘nine-eleven’ aftermath, Americans’ were united and the world was united in sympathy for America. How much things have changed, five years later. In my view the ill-considered invasion of Iraq and subsequent post invasion “blunders” (the phrase used by the conservative Economist magazine) are the principal culprits.

To acknowledge this reality says nothing about how best to extricate America from the circumstances in which our nation is presently mired. But as we listen to reflections on the anniversary of 9-11 three points seem worth bearing in mind.

1. The war in Iraq and the “war on terror” are not the same war. Arguably, America’s commitment to democratizing Iraq, laudable though it may be, diminishes America’s ability to fight the “war on terror” and to marshal the support of others in that fight.
2. The evidence that Saddam Hussein had nothing to do with the events of ‘nine eleven’ is overwhelming though some reports say that 60 per-cent of Americans believe otherwise. Since President Bush frequently makes such a connection, knowing full well that it is false, the widespread misperception of many Americans is not surprising.
3. Polarizing rhetoric and political tactics may seem attractive in the short term, but like the mustard gas used as a weapon in World War I, have a tendency to blow back upon the user. (The metaphor is from Barbara Tuchman’s THE MARCH OF FOLLY, which offers useful lessons for America’s current circumstances – and leaders.)

I grieve for those who lost loved ones on ‘nine eleven.’ And I grieve for America, my country, whose leaders seem to have lost both their way and their moral anchors in the five years that have followed.

Cooking pasta from scratch

As regular readers will know, I serve cook and host dinners for AU students on alternative Sunday nights throughout the year. Like living in a dorm itself, some might view this as a burden, but I feel differently. Gourmet cooking is elemental and tactile, in contrast to the world of abstractions in which most academics function, most of the time.

This year, I am experimenting with doing more advance preparation in the country, where I spend my weekends. Perhaps this is a first step towards a post university career as a caterer, for small elegant dinners. Last evening I was alone – my wife was at one of her frequent weekend competitions – so I could give cooking my full attention. Great cooking utensils are an important part of this. I cook in enameled Le Creuset cast iron pots, from France. My collection of knives and cleavers are razor sharp. The only problem, cooking in two venues, is that just the right utensel, or the right spice can often be where I am not. But I will evolve a solution in due course.

A complex dish and surprisingly, a made from scratch pasta sauce is complex, must be done in stages. I have learned that it is best to prepare in advance, with virtually unlimited numbers of mixing containers at the ready – for fenelgreek, garlic, virgin olive oil, turkey hot sausage (no pork at my meals), mushrooms, beef chunks onions and diced tomatoes. Occasionally, as a time saver, I will also cheat and use a bit of prepared sauce.

By 9:30 all of this was bubbling cheerfully on the stove, where it would simmer to nearly midnight and then sit overnight. This morning I decanted it into my ‘catering’ containers for the trip back to Washington and this evening’s event.

These must sound like pretty mundane concerns on the eve of five-year “nine-eleven” commemorations. But perhaps if those of us living in Washington did more cooking and less politicking and talking, the human race would be better for it.

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

If you have lost a loved one, this may offer consolation

In desperate hope I go and search for her in all the corners of my room; I find her not. My house is small and what has gone from it can never be regained. By infinite is thy mansion, my lord, and seeking her I have come to thy door. I stand under the golden canopy of thine evening sky and lift my eager eyes to thy face. I have come to the bring of eternity from which nothing can vanish – no hope, no happiness, no vision of a face seen through tears. Oh, dip my emptied life into that ocean, plunge it into the deepest fullness. Let me for once feel that lost sweet touch in the allness of the universe.

The passage is from the writings of Indian Philosopher Mystic, Rabindranath Tagore, quoted in The Gandhi Message, a publication of the Washington DC based Gandhi Memorial Center (www,, Volume XXXIX, November 3 2005.

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

How much sleep is enough?

How much sleep is enough?

Human beings are biological animals and so the answer to this question is pretty well known. Five hours is the absolute lower bound, with six a more satisfactory lower limit for most. Devoting more that eight hours to sleep is probably wasteful, though young people need more. Young lovers, newly married couples and the exceptional older couple that has sustained a degree of intimacy may spend more time in bed, but not all of the time devoted to sleeping.

Human beings are shaped by intellect and spirit as well as biology. These three forces that shape us are not necessarily aligned. Paradoxically, the profession that knows most about human biology and in which the need for attentiveness is greatest is also may be the least rational when it comes to sleep. Young interns are compelled to work in an almost constant state of exhaustion, though it is widely recognized that this is harmful. The tradition continues in at least some medical specialties – surgery for one – after the period of intership is completed. The justification seems to be an unexamined mix of perceived economic necessity and tribalism. When inevitable mistakes are made by exhausted interns, the tribal elders cover them up or make an example of a young man or women, striving to do his or her best under near impossible circumstances.

Another profession with equal attentiveness requirements, though less knowledge of biology is military service, especially the Navy. As a young shipboard naval officer, my duties included serving as officer of the deck during both special sea detail and general quarters. On occasion, my duties conning officer spanned twelve to 14 hours or more, broken only by an occasional bathroom break. I can remember one evening, when my ship was conducting night plane guard operations after a day of combat drills when my attentive moments were broken by hallucinations. I was pumping myself full of coffee and nicotine to stay away. Why didn’t I tell the captain I was simply to exhausted to continue. That simply was not done in the navy.

Well… being an academic, when I start writing about something that seems simple, I tend to go on an on. What I mostly was reflecting on, this morning, was how much more effective and especially how creative I am when I do get enough sleep; and how often I push the limits, with predictable consequences.. I am little different than my 18 – 20 year old neighbors in Anderson hall who are conducting similar experiments with sleep and multiple personal, academic, public service and recreational commitments that seem imperative. On my best days I turn in about 10 and arise about 4:30 with a 15 – 20 min power nap at mid day. But I am always pushing the limit the end of the day. The next morning and throughout the next day, diminished effectiveness is the price I pay.

I should be more tolerant of those who have created the circumstances in which doctors and military persons function and of the students who continue to grapple with what appears to be a long standing, unsolved, human quandary.

Monday, September 04, 2006

Greater love hath no person than this...

We had a visiting priest conduct services yesterday morning. At the coffee hour which followed, I thanked her for joining us and we spoke briefly. She shared a moving story of her circumstances. Both she and her husband are priests. She was ordained first; her husband a few years later. About four years ago, her husband was diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer’s disease, He was in his late fifties then and is now in is early sixties. He has lost most of his mental capacities. She is the caregiver. “Will it be necessary to institutionalize your husband,” I asked. “When it is not longer possible to carry on,” was the reply. I said I would pray for her husband and for her. “Pray for God to give me strength,” was her request.

Often, I reflect on the meaning of marriage vows. Whatever form they take, promise of a lifetime commitment is common to all. Yet in America, the probability that a marriage will end in divorce is fifty per-cent. For me the most moving part of marriage rituals has never been the exchange of vows, but the brief speeches given by friends and the couple themselves at a rehearsal dinner or the reception following the ceremony. In those bright, happy moments, couples share the feelings about each other and themselves that lead them to make a lifetime commitment. When I see older couples together, obviously living out lives of resentment and tedium; when I see couples – and those close to them – creating and enduring the searing acrimony of a painful divorce, I have a wish to replay those joyful, hopeful first moments of their committed relationship.

For some couples at least, for whatever reason, the marriage vow is a serious one. It seemed as if I met one partner in such a committed relationship yesterday. A passage from the book of John in the Christian Bible (Chapter 15, Verse 13) came to mind. I will paraphrase it in gender-neutral language.

Greater love hath no person that this, than to lay down their own life for a loved one.

Sunday, September 03, 2006

"BB" and Mickey - New Members of Our Family

About a month ago, I described the process by which we began seeking a replacement for St. Benedict, one of the two Siamese cats who had been family members since we returned from Sri Lanka in January 1989. (St. Bede, his litter-made, is still with us, though with somewhat impaired hearing and mobility.) After an unfruitful attempt to adopt from the Siamese Rescue League – a house with indoor plants on which cats might nibble was deemed unsuitable – we decided to seek our new companions from the Fauquier County Animal Shelter, near Warrenton.

An animal rescue shelter could certainly be a sad place, but the employees of the Fauquier Center did their best to make it a loving and caring one – and they succeeded. Both the grounds and the buildings were immaculately maintained and quite spacious. The four employees on duty obviously loved animals. They had adopted several and took others home in the evening for foster-care visits. There was also an ancient three-legged cat and a dog recovering from severe trauma that seemed to be permanent residents. The woman who helped us (our adoption consultant) knew the names and backgrounds of each cat that was being sheltered. She seemed to have unlimited time to spend with us. In fact, she said she preferred clients who took time to see whether the animals they were considering for adoption were compatible. Since we were adopting two, we wanted to see how different pairings were considering would get along – eventually we chose two who had been living together.

The hard part was choosing, since our decision would change the lives of two animals. My wife had already visited once and identified likely candidates. On Saturday morning, we spent the better part of two hours at the shelter, in the company of our patient adoption consultant. The sad part was the candidates we decided to return to their cages – and to an uncertain fate (though there was no talk of euthanasia.) There was “Heath,” a twelve year old Siamese with a winning personality, but seriously overweight and with health problems. “Mary Jane” was a shy and beautiful long hair who had been rescued from a ‘hoarding’ circumstance and obviously needed a good home. There were two Siamese kittens who tempted our resolve to adopt adult cats. And there was “Lincoln” an affectionate, personable tiger who missed the cut by a hair’s breadth.

Our first choice was “Mickey” a large and lively adolescent ‘orange marmalade’ cat. Mickey had been on Emily’s short-list and immediately won me over with his genial, affectionate acceptance of a stranger. Emily then chose “Lincoln,” a dark tiger, as his companion, but we had lingering doubts because he and Mickey didn’t seem to hit it off when we paired them. We continued our search, but with Lincoln still tentatively in the #2 spot. Near the end of your tour, however, we encountered BB. BB looked much like Lincoln, but had been Mickey’s companion in the same cage, for a couple of months and in the shelter since May. At the last minute Emily decided that, since we would be acclimating the new arrivals to St. Bede, it probably made sense to choose two cats who knew each other. BB became our choice and Lincoln was returned to his cage. Throughout the long process, our consultant was remarkable. She informed us about each animal, helped us assess strengths and weaknesses and never once revealed her own preferences (which certainly she must have had).

Now Mickey and BB seem to be adopting well and we are glad of our choices. I should think our home in the county would be close to feline heaven, especially after the shelter (wonderful though it was). After our new family members have bonded, there will be woods in which to roam; birds and small rodents to stalk. Living in the country we accept the realities of predator-prey relationships and the food chain. In the meantime there are the secrets of a new and complex indoor environment to explore. Though Bede has accepted the intruders will ill grace, communicated by the deep growls than an angry Siamese can muster, we are hopeful that will change.

It has been a good process, though not without pathos.

Fire Alarm Evacuation #1

The first week of classes is always intense, so I am just catching up on a few things I wanted to write about. First is last week’s fire alarm evacuation, which occurred on Wednesday or Thursday. (For new readers, when there are fire alarms on the South Side of the AU Campus, residents in all three halls, Anderson, Centennial and Letts, must evacuate. Evacuations have been one of the least attractive facets of South Side living. During my first semester in residence, we were called out more than 40 times, typically at 2:00 or 3:00 AM in the morning. On several memorable occasions, there were two evacuations in one night.)

These events are never good news, but if one wanted to look on the bright side, there were three ‘good news elements. First, the alarms went off at about 6:15. Since 5 AM is when I normally begin my weekdays, I was up and about. Second, the alarm was a genuine one, as opposed to a malicious “pull”. It was triggered by one of the smoke detectors (I don’t know any more details.) Third, virtually everyone evacuated. The size of the crowd made me realize how many of my neighbors had been staying in bed during last Spring’s evacuations. This is understandable – who wants to leave a warm bed for the cold outdoors at 3AM in the morning – but also dangerous – there really good be a fire.

Everyone seemed to be in good spirits. Heath bars and Reese peanut butter cups may not be the ideal breakfast snack, but I exhausted my supply. In the afternoon I drove to the Giant to restock. It is always good to be prepared – candy distribution by the Faculty Resident has become a South Side tradition. But hopefully I can save my candy supply for the end of semester celebration I have promised if we complete the fall with no more than one malicious ‘pull’ – and public castigation (though perhaps not flogging) of the perpetrator.