Friday, June 26, 2009

'We thought it would disrupt people's commute too much."

This monday evening, shortly before 5:30, A Washington Metropolitan Transit Authority Train crashed into a second train, parked at the station. Nine passengers were killed and many more injured. What caused the crash is still under investigation, but some facts seem clear. The computerized system that was supposed to control the train failed. The driver attempted to stop the train manually using the emergency braking system. That, too, failed. The cars on the train causing the crash were the oldest in the system. In 2006, the National Transportation Safety Board had recommended that they be removed from service. The Board has the authority to recommend, but no enforcement authority. According to news stories, the head of the Washington Area Metropolitan Transit Authority declined to follow the recommendation. There were no funds available to replace the aging cars, he is reported to have said and removing them from service without replacement would be ‘too disruptive.‘ Unplanned disruption has now occurred, of course. For those who have lost their lives their families the ‘disruption’ has been catastrophic.

The crash occurred at a time when, just a few miles from the crash site, legislation to limit global warming and legislation to reform the America’s dysfunctional health care system are being debated in the halls of Congress. The proposals being offered have their flaws, no doubt, but the objections of opponents sound much like those with which the head of the Metropolitan Transit Authority responded to the NTSB in 2006. Fighting global warming will be ‘too disruptive’ of the economy. Addressing societal and economic problems created by more that 40 million uninsured Americans; by the most costly least effective health care system in the industrialized world disrupt our system of private health care. Not too long ago, the same voices were speaking out against and effectively lobbying against more rigorous regulatory oversight of America’s financial system. No doubt those arguments, too, attempted to stoke fears of ‘disruption.’

‘Crashes’ that are a consequence of global warming and a dysfunctional political culture in Washington lie ahead, and not too far in our future. They will be disruptive.

Labels: , , , , ,

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Empathizing with the clinically depressed

Last Friday evening, one of my most exceptional staff members and one of the most exceptional human beings it has been my privilege to work with completed her last day on the job. She is leaving Washington to begin a new life and, hopefully, a new career. We worked together for nearly four years and I came to rely implicitly on her intelligence, creativity, good values, analytical ability, technical skills, exceptional judgement and much more. As we said official ‘farewells’ and she walked out the door (though we were to meet again for dinner), I began to feel a hollowness inside.

With characteristic class, she had informed me of her decision many months before. We had planned the transition, which includes my own stepping down as CTE Director meticulously. Transitions can be difficult, especially in an organization, like CTE, that has experienced rapid growth under a single, cohesive leadership team. Knowing a transition was coming, I reviewed relevant literature and spent many hours with a highly respected consultant. I knew the potential pitfalls of transitions and we seem to have avoided most of them. The timing of my colleague’s departure and my own are part of a carefully crafted and successfully implemented plan.

None of this made any difference last Friday evening, or the next day. I felt heavy; exhausted. The world seemed monochromatic. I could not shake the overwhelming feeling of sadness at my colleague’s departure. I had no energy to begin the projects planned for the weekend though they clamored for attention. The beauty of the rural surroundings where I spend my weekends did nothing improve my spirits. I seemed just to be going through the motions of living, in a bleak dream world. On top of all, I cracked a tooth, which made eating painful. I was, in two words, totally depressed.

Sunday morning, things began to brighten. Perhaps a longer than usual nights sleep helped. Perhaps it was more than an hour of disciplined meditation and study that made a difference. Perhaps the sympathetic companionship of our two cats tipped the balance. The dentist to whom I made an emergency call was helpful. By mid afternoon, I had gone shopping for the medications I needed and for groceries. I was relatively pain free and could return to a more-or-less normal work schedule, which included a deadline-driven review of lengthy PhD fellowship applications.

Monday, I was more-or-less back to my normal routine, apart from an hour long stint in the dentist’s chair. But I have not forgotten the grey shaded dream world through which my leaden limbed persona dragged itself on friday evening and saturday. In the future, when I say to friends that have experienced clinical depression, “I understand.” I will be speaking from at least a modicum of experience.

Labels: , ,

Wisdom beyond her years

Monday evening, I had dinner in my Faculty Resident’s apartment with a remarkable young woman. I already knew this to some degree, which was why I wanted to set aside time for an extended conversation. She had been recognized for her achievements and singled out by mentors as someone worth getting to know. Too often, it seems to me, faculty members devote the preponderance of their one-on-one time to problem students and too little to the exceptional ones. While I don’t neglect problem students, I have always sought out the very best and offered them individual attention.

My student-friend is deeply religious, but has no calling to be a missionary. She is uncomfortable seeking to impose her values, however deeply held, upon others. Last summer, on her own initiative, unconnected with any program, she spent three months in a developing country, living with the family of a distant relative. Her goal was not to ‘make a difference’ except, perhaps in herself. She simply wanted to observe and learn. She returned to Washington with increased skepticism about ‘international development’ (which is my own professional field). She wondered how many of us really know enough about ourself, let alone others, to embark on changing someone else’s life.

In his book, How To Practice: A Guide to Meaningful Life, the Dalai Llama offers a parable which I see as relevant to those of us who are committed to ‘improving’ other people’s lives. He writes:

There are three different styles of altruistic attitude found in three different types of people. The first type is like a monarch, desiring to achieve Buddhahood first as the most effective way to help other beings. The second is like a boatman, desiring to arrive at the other shore of enlightenment together with all other beings. The third is like a shepherd, desiring that all others should achieve Buddhahood first, before his or her own enlightenment.

The last two analogies only indicate the compassionate attitude of certain types of practitioners; in actuality there is no case like the boatman, of everyone attaining enlightenment simultaneously, nor like the shepherd, prior to oneself. Rather, enlightenment always comes in the first way, like a monarch, since Bodhisattvas eventually decide to become enlightened as fast as possible so that they can more effectively help others on a vast scale.

Like most parables, this conveys multiple lessons. A lesson I have drawn is the importance of being deeply grounded in oneself, before embarking on missions to change others, perhaps against their will. The parable’s message is that ‘there is no case like the boatman...nor like the shepherd...’ And attaining Buddahood takes practice, which may require the whole of one lifetime or many lifetimes.

Somehow, at a very young age, my young friend seems to have internalized this message. Though she is not a Buddhist, there were times, in our evening together, when I felt I was in the presence of a Bhodhisatva. She possesses wisdom beyond her years.

Labels: , , ,

A new way to look at weddings

Last evening, I had dinner with a young friend and former staff member who is completing plans for her wedding, to be held shortly. She and her fiance live modestly, come from families of modest means and are not at all given to ostentatious displays. The wedding she described was not ostentatious, but seemed a very traditional one, with a large guest list, about 175, invited. We know each other well enough so that I felt comfortable in asking why this was so.

The answer, from someone whose judgement I deeply respect, provided one of those rare, paradigm shifting moments of illumination that I experience only rarely. My own view was that weddings are primarily rites of passage for the bride and groom; that they should be the focus of attention and the ones whose wishes were respected. I wondered why it was so often the wishes of families, rather than those of bride and groom that seemed to prevail in wedding planning. And I wondered why a young couple, beginning their lives together, would want to spend so much money on a party for a large group of people with whom they could only speak very briefly, if at all, on their wedding day.

My friend’s view was quite different and offered insight not only about her own wedding, but about Sri Lankan weddings I have attended over many years. Weddings are not solely, perhaps not even primarily, for the bride and groom, she told me. They are more for the families and are, in fact, celebrating the union of these families and, hopefully, the blending of two family traditions as well as the union of bride and groom.

Today I had lunch with another woman friend, an Indian and shared this insight. She said yes, that was certainly the way that her own wedding had been viewed. The two families had, essentially planned and managed everything. She had little say and that was fine. This was as it should be, she felt.

From now on, when I attend large wedding I will worry less about whether or not the wishes of bride and groom are being fully respected by their respective families. Broadened by my friend’s insight, I will simply relax and enjoy the celebration.

Labels: , ,

Tuesday, June 09, 2009

'He doesn't have to be nice, he's our boss.'

Yesterday evening, while checking in the Salt Lake City International Airport Delta Airlines counter, I witnessed a vignette that, sadly, may be all too common.  An elderly Japanese  couple, obviously with limited English and imperfect understanding of complex airport baggage procedures walked shyly up to the counter, seeking assistance.  The florid, gray haired, slightly overweight man behind the counter was almost belligerent in responding to their questions.  His demeanor conveyed arrogance and impatience bordering on contempt.  “How could anyone be so stupid as not to speak proper English and not understand our ‘automatic check in‘ procedures” was the unambiguous message he communicated.  Happily another agent and a Japanese bystander joined the group after a few moments.   They managed to resolve the couple’s problem with little difficulty.

I remarked to the cordial young woman helping me with my baggage: “he could have been nicer to them.”  “He doesn’t have to be nice, he’s our boss,” was her response.

The remark saddened me.  Once Delta Airlines was known for the exceptional quality of its customer service.  In fact, it was one of the firms highlighted in Tom Peters and Robert Waterman’s best selling book, ‘In Search of Excellence.’  The fall from excellence appears to have been catastrophic. How could Delta’s top management have let this happen?   I recognize that airlines are facing tough economic times, but it is hard to see how this justifies the outright hostility towards customers (and apparently towards his own staff) that this ‘bosses’ behavior exhibited. Does it cost more to be civil and considerate?  Perhaps promoting such bosses helps explains Delta’s decline.  

I was also sad for my country.  Incidents such as the one I witnessed often create lasting impressions.  I can only hope that this experience of rude, hostile behavior is not the lasting impression of America that the old couple will take back with them to Japan.  It is a lasting impression of Delta Airlines that I will not soon forget.

Labels: , , ,

Monday, June 08, 2009

A beautiful and moving high school graduation experience

This weekend I traveled to Salt Lake City to visit my son and his family.  The trip’s purpose was to celebrate my grandson’s graduation from Intermountain Christian School.  In more forty years of teaching at four Universities,  I have attended countless graduation ceremonies.  This was one of the best - and not only because the celebration included a close family member.

What made it so special?

Most important was the palpable sense of community.  The graduating class was only 20 students, all of whom were known to local audience members.  When I introduced myself to those sitting around me as a graduate’s grandfather, this was an entrée to animated conversation. Each graduate walked in slowly and was introduced to the audience individually.  The applause that greeted each was prolonged and enthusiastic.

The ceremony was short.  Many graduations are characterized by what I call negative synergy - the whole is somehow less than the sum of the parts.  Academic institutions can have many stakeholders.  Since graduation is one of the most important annual institution-wide events, each feels entitled to a piece of the action.  When one adds the long parade of several hundred - perhaps a thousand or more - graduates walking across the stage to receive their degrees and shake the President’s hand, the ceremony can seem interminable.  Intermountain Christian School’s graduation was over in an hour, with everyone feeling fully celebrated and acknowledged.

The addresses by the class salutatorian and valedictorian were outstanding.  Most graduation speeches are unmemorable, except, perhaps for the graduates.  Among the many I have heard, few stand out.  One was Representative Barbara Jordan’s passionate address on the role of university students in the civil rights movement, not long before her death.  NPR correspondent Daniel Schorr used the concept of ‘virtual reality’ as a powerful metaphor to emphasize the importance of journalistic integrity in sustaining democratic societies.  My own former student, John Prendergast, inspired AU graduates, this May, with the story of his oddessy from student to internationally recognized human rights advocate.

Surprisingly, both ICS student addresses rose nearly to that level.  The salutatorian’s presentation featured a video that showed pictures of each class member and highlighted positive qualities that made them distinctive.  The valedictorian presented a beautifully crafted speech that emphasized a timeless, fundamental message: the importance of being deeply grounded in ones own values and attending to one’s close relationships before embarking on crusades to change others and the world.  Her powerful content and delivery, I thought, struck just the right tone for graduates, faculty, relatives and friends.  Somehow she avoided the banality, platitudes and pretentiousness that graduation addresses on this theme so often convey.

This beautiful and moving graduation experience led me to reflect, once again, on the importance of human scale in educational processes.  ICS is a private school but not a wealthy one.  What it has to offer is a dedicated staff, backed up by a dedicated cadre of parents and grandparents.  It is grounded in a strong faith tradition, but but no means all of the students are evangelical Christians.  

Obviously major research universities, including my own, must serve classes much larger than twenty.  But the ICS experience poses a challenge for those of us, like myself, who are concerned about the need to engage with our students as unique individual human beings.  How can we recreate the affirming, empowering qualities that were so much in evidence at the ICS graduation in much larger settings?

Labels: , , ,

Friday, June 05, 2009

Take time for a nap

My fairly normal day begins between 5:30 and 6 AM with an hour of meditation. related reading ( on Buddhism at the moment ) and prayer.  This is followed bout 45 min of weight lifting and other exercises – another skirmish in the eventually losing war to keep my relentlessly aging physical being fully operational.  The working day normally ends between 8 and 8:30 with attempts to dispatch at least the most urgent of the day’s email accumulations.  I then return to my apartment for a late dinner, with physical and psychic resources almost fully exhausted.

Last Friday night, the last email I opened was a poem from my uniquely gifted younger sister.  In the genetic lottery, she drew not only with my father’s poetic talents, intellect and equable temperament, but also my mother’s artistic talents.  The poem was entitled….


Is it wrong to nap on a summer’s day

When the sun is out and the world’s at play?

When the world is sunk in a sea of gloom

Is it wrong to take to my cozy room?

When tomorrow’s cares are too hard to face

Is a featherbed such a dreadful place?

If to strive and drudge means to court a seizure,

Dare the drudge be judge of my mode of leisure?


If a tireless worker’s what you want,

Please don’t contact me, I’ll be en couchant!

You be rapt with awe at Herculean feats!

I’ll be wrapped up in my flannel sheets.

Praise the work ethic of a better man

But if you seek me, I’m on my divan.

Praise my sister for her industry

I’ll applaud her prone from my silk settee.

When they’re dead on their feet

And their strength has been sapped,

And I m fresh and I’m sweet,

You will know that I’ve napped!

Labels: ,

Don't be afraid that your life will end...

My daughter sent me this passage. It was part of a beautiful graphic, entitled “The Rainbow Tree.” I will try attaching it to this posting or post it on my facebook site, or both.

As we grow up, we learn that even the one person that wasn't supposed to ever let you down probably will. You will have your heart broken probably more than once and it's harder every time. You'll break hearts too, so remember how it felt when yours was broken. You'll fight with your best friend. You'll blame a new love for things an old one did. You'll cry because time is passing too fast, and you'll eventually lose someone
you love. So take too many pictures, laugh too much, and love like you've never been hurt because every sixty seconds you spend upset is a minute of happiness you'll never get back. Don't be afraid that your life will end, be afraid that it will never begin.