Monday, January 01, 2007

Holiday Newsletter

A years end, it has become a tradition in may families to supplement or replace Christmas/holiday cards with a newsletter recapitulating the year’s events. Most frequently these are banal recountings of ‘good news,’ reminiscent of the Christmas newsletter in the moving two-person drama, “Love Letters.” Occasionally letters probe more deeply, which I find more interesting. As we age, news of illness and death, as well as more joyful life transitions begins to appear.

My 2006 newsletter draws on the 114 blog postings I wrote last year. Thus, most of the material will not be unfamiliar to regular readers, if any.

Dear Family and Friends

This will be a different sort of Christmas newsletter though, for a change, it was actually begun on Christmas day, rather than days afterwards. As many of you know, I have been writing a blog under the pseudonym ‘Dormgrandpop’ ( for several years. Like many blogs, it is a mixture of dairy, reflection and commentary. Blogs need not have a purpose, but if Dormgrandpop’s blog has one, it is to provide AU students, especially residents, with glimpses of one professor’s life and reflections from an outside-the-classroom vantage point.

This makes can make a yearly recapitulation easier, albeit more lengthy, since I need not rely on memory for thoughts and reflections. I have chosen a few blog titles and excerpts as markers for a full and productive year.

You will find little news of, my wife, Emily in what follows, though including shared experiences is customary in many family newsletters. One of Emily’s distinctive attributes and great strengths is her independence, which extends to this genre and many others. Some of you may be receiving a missive from her, as well.

01 01 Can an old dog (or Professsor) learn new tricks? In November, I switched from my faithful Toshiba laptop to new Macintosh Powerbook, Generation Four. The experience has transformed my experience of computing and has now traveled with me to Portugal in Sri Lanka. My staff gave me a book about Macintosh Zealots, The Cult of Mac as a birthday present.

01 10 Celebrating teaching at AU. A flagship event in the Center of Teaching Excellence Year is the annual Ann Ferren Teaching Conference. This year’s venue was AU’s gorgeous new Katzen Arts Center. I said in my opening remarks, in probably no other higher education in the world would more than 250 faculty members voluntarily gather, in the second week in January to discuss and celebrate effective teaching.

02 08 My day. Since beginning to blog, my respect for Eleanor Roosevelt, who sustained a daily column entitled “My Day” for several years, has grown. Some days, my ‘to do’ list is so full that I simply don’t write at all. This day begin at 6 AM with a morning tennis match (at which a colleague of many years and I also do business) and did not conclude until midnight, after an Anderson Hall staff meeting. At 12:15, I was too exhausted and devoid of creativity to do anything except post my schedule for the day.

03 02 A rich, energized campus. 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 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. 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. 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.

03 03 Moving on. 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. 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.”

03 25 Yin and Yang of a Close Community. This was a reflection on ‘comunities’ to which I am linked, in Rural Virginia, at American University and in Sri Lanka. After describing the warmth and sense of in inclusion each provided. I concluded: “Close communities, too, can have their dark side. Families can know too much about each other, about dark secrets that can are 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.

04 03 The purpose of life. 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. mIn 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.

05 09 Seasons of the heart. This was written after downloading a John Denver album onto my Ipod. One song, in particular, evoked memories. “For me, “Seasons of the Heart” is the most descriptive song about falling out of love every written. I decided to divorce my first wife after listening to “Seasons of the Heart” several times, driving home to our (then) farm in Western Maryland. For many women, men and couples, the decade between 40 and 50 is a particularly intense time of reexamining relationships; often of affairs. My close friends and I – in California and on the East Coast – were living passionate fast paced lives, committed to causes, in our work and relationships; writing, speaking and traveling, overseas and from coast to coast in the US. Unlike Annie Denver, we did not have someone who chronicled our lives, relationships and the seasons of our hearts in song and then presented them in concerts and recordings. I never knew Annie personally. But I should imagine she did not always view that sort of visibility as a blessing.

06 29 ‘Time to Colombo: 4:05.’ For many years, the real time travel map, where passengers can watch a tiny plane image creeping across a topographical map, has been a feature of international travel. The transit from London to Colombo is, particularly evocative, because I have visited so many of the cities…. Interestingly the maps have no political boundaries. …Flying over the Middle East, there is Teheran, where I consulted for the Imperial Government of the Shah. Muscat, where I visited students who had become influential civil servants… Then the cities of India, many now with new names, Bombay has become Mumbai. Madras has become Chennai, though Delhi remains unchanged. Who decides when a new name appears on the map, following a political upheaval…?

07 01 My travails with Cingular Wireless. Vile customer service, on the part of IT and cell providers seems to be a reality of our times. Marketing and sales to new customers, not servicing existing ones is where the action is. My staff and I spent hours, from DC and Colombo trying to get Cingular to provide the service for which I had contracted. Finally, I gave up, expressing my frustration in a blog. “Indifferent or incompetent ‘customer service’ seems a chronic malady of our time. Thus it may be a bit unfair to single out Cingular wireless for special mention. I do so because Cingular staff members seem to have engaged themselves in making my life difficult with a particular, diabolical malice….”

08 24 The 10th Imperative – My take on the Middle East. This excerpts a fairly lengthy reflection that took my book Paradise Poisoned as a point of departure. THE TENTH IMPERATIVE: Do realistic, rigorous, opportunity-costs analyses of military options, versus equivalent expenditures for non military options, before proceeding down the slippery slope of ‘military solutions’ to complex development problems. Political leaders often say they ‘had no choice,’ but there are always choices. The longer the time horizon, the greater the range of choices. Paradise Poisoned provides an estimate of funds that might have been expended on non violent options in Sri Lanka – like providing economically relevant non-discriminatory educational opportunities for Sri Lanka’s youth. Rarely, if ever, are military options contrasted with non military ones. Development professionals sometimes joke that development assistance budgets are denominated in millions, while military budgets are denominated in billions, but the joke is not funny.

09 17 Balaton Group 2006 – New Members Night. The Balton Group is a unique network – and community – of individuals who are committed to sustainable development. Many are global leaders. The group has met in Hungary, each year, for 25 years. New members night is one of many customs that defines a distinct group culture: “…There were eight individuals from eight different nations – Japan, Jordan, France, Germany, Russia, the United States, Bolivia and Denmark …In response to questions, they shared personal information and reflected on how their personal lives and commitment to a better world intermingled. They discussed conventional lifestyles abandoned, comfortable lifestyles foregone, and risks accepted in pursuit of deeply held values. … “New members night” is a time of affirmation, renewal and hope for the Balaton Group.”

09 26 A death threat and what there is to be learned from it: I wrote this reflection after an Anderson Hall resident assistant received a death threat, presumably from another student: “In my four plus years at Anderson Hall, 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.

10 30 A warning from the prophet Isaiah. As mid-term election campaigning drew to a close, American political life seemed to have reached a nadir of dissembling and divisiveness. Sunday’s old Testament reading at Leeds Church, not chosen for political reasons, provided food for thought: “.See the Lord’s hand is not too short to save, nor his ear to dull to hear. Rather, your iniquities have been barriers between you and your God, and your sins have hidden his face from you so that he does not hear. For your hands are defiled with blood, and your fingers with iniquity; your lips have spoken lies, your tongue mutters wickedness. No one brings suit justly, no one goes to law honestly; they rely on empty pleas, they speak lies, conceiving mischief and begetting iniquity. Therefore justice is far from us, and righteousness does not reach us; we wait for light, and no! there is darkness; and for brightness, but we walk in gloom. We grope like the blind along a wall, groping like those who have no eyes; we stumble at noon in the twilight, among the vigorous as though we were dead. We all growl like bears; like doves we moan mournfully.”

11 28 The Holidays – A time for musing about ‘family values. This Thanksgiving, there was much to be thankful for. My father, now age 96 visited from Pennsylvania. Our long drives together provide a time for long conversations, which I cherish. My stepson, whose professionalism, clear values and authenticity I greatly admire, drove up from Kentucky. It was one of those picture-book Thanksgivings with, even, a picture-book turkey. The season evoked musings on family values, from which I share the conclusion: “[…it was not until I was in my late 40s, that I first experienced the concept of unconditional love as a reality. The experience was overwhelming; one of the most powerful and memorable of my life. Unconditional love is supposed to be a fundamental family value, though I believe it is experienced rarely either in families or committed relationships, It is not something to be taken for granted. Perhaps this is why one definition of God is ‘unconditional love.’ From these musings, readers will see why, for me, “family values” are a domain of questions rather than answers. This can be disquieting, as are most fundamental questions, but also useful. What we do not take for granted, we tend to examine more deeply. Perhaps this may lead to deeper understanding of what is fundamentally important.”

12 11 Traveling by train to Florida. There are some individuals in the world with unusually deep reservoirs of unconditional love. My daughter is one of them. I know of few people who are more beloved by more friends to whom she has lent a helping hand, unpretentiously and unselfishly. It seems as natural as breathing for her to do this. Earlier in the fall, when I asked what she wanted for her birthday, she said ‘come for a visit.” So I did. We had a wonderful, if brief visit, a time to connect with her friends, eat out and see some of her landscaping creations. An added benefit was traveling to Florda by train, something I had not done for many years. Here are a few reflections: My ‘roomette” was more spacious than on the older Pullman cars – and more expensive – but I didn’t mind. The space was billed as accommodating two, but I think this only applies to a young couple in the romantic phase of dating or early marriage. After many intense end-of-semester days at AU, I relished the solitude. A tapestry of familiar terrain, unfolding outside my window, brought back memories. Occasionally, I would read email on my Blackberry, make phone calls or complete a deferred task stored on my computer. But mostly, I just sat back, in my room or taking three quite acceptable dining-car meals, absorbing the sights and sounds. Sleeping car travel is a somewhat costly anachronism. It is for those who relish a unique travel experience, perhaps steeped in memories, not for ‘busy people’ who want to get somewhere fast. But I am glad I took the time, shall do so again, and perhaps share the experience with one of my grandchildren.

10 07 You don’t have to taught how to love, you have to be taught not to. The following, written by my friend, the late Donella Meadows, is out of order, chronologically, but seemed an apt ending. She was writing about a Balaton Group meeting. “…All week we were together, our nations sworn enemies of each other. And what was important was not our nationalities – it’s amazing how seldom nationalities come up at all in Balaton meetings. When they do, it’s as a contribution, as in songs or dances or rocks or data that are different and that be shared to make the whole picture more colorful and more complete. What’s important is who we are as people, what we stand for, how we can learn to serve to make a better world. It’s not hard to be like that, it’s the most natural thing in the world. As a little song from “South Pacific” says, “You’ve got to be taught to hate and fear, you’ve got to be taught from year to year, it’s got to be drummed in your dear little ear, you’ve got to be carefully taught.” You don’t have to be taught to love. The Balaton meeting gives me a safe space, both to think and to love, to be challenged intellectually and to let myself be mushy and hug people and sing and play with them without holding back my feelings. I feel released.”

My love and best wishes to you in the upcoming New Year.


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