Saturday, August 29, 2009

Dormgrandpop's Fall Dinner Schedule - This Sunday Night's Dinner Postponed

For those AU students to whom I may have spoken about dinner, this Sunday night, I have postponed the dinner until Sunday, October 18. My apologies for the late notice. The reason is that I am deep into preparations for a six week trip out of the country, with personal matters to wrap up before I leave and a presentation at a State Department - US Institute of Peace day-long roundtable on Sri Lanka in on Monday. Here is the complete dinner schedule for the fall. For those of you within easy distance of the AU Campus, put them your calendar. Because of space and food limitations, there will be signups in advance, but all are welcome. The schedule and menus follow:











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Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Dormgrandpop's First Faculty Resident's Tea today.

For AU students, faculty, staff and others within easy reach of the AU campus. Begin the new academic year by joining me for Faculty Resident’s tea, from 4:30 to 5:30 in my apartment, 101 Anderson Hall, on the South side of campus. Afterwards, I will hold office hours (apartment hours) from 5:30 to about 7:30. All are welcome as we begin this second year of a new AU tradition.

PS: For regular updates on Faculty Resident Activities, become a Friend on my Facebook site, AU Dormgrandpop.

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Sunday, August 23, 2009

Meditation as an alternative to 'extreme' sports competitions and drugs

I have two close acquaintances who are passionately committed to what are often described as ‘extreme’ sports. One competes in several 100 mile ultra marathons each year. When not actually competing, training for these events is an irrevocable life priority. The other’s commitment is to the equestrian equivalent of the ultra marathon, 100 and 50 mile horseback races over arduous terrain.

Each has their tales of physical privation, endured and surmounted, to share with compatriots and friends. During one race, the marathoner, towards the end of an event, lost the sight of one eye, but pressed on. When he became completely blind, he pressed his ‘crew’ of friends to help him continue to the finish line. Their better judgement prevailed, however, and he was persuaded to stop at about mile 90. The endurance racer began to suffer internal bleeding toward the end of one event. Only after finishing the race did she allow friends to rush her to a nearby emergency room for resuscitation. Neither she, nor attending veterinarians would ever allow a horse to compete with an injury, but she is much less forgiving of her own body.

What these sports have in common with avocations such as rock climbing, extreme motorcycle racing and, perhaps any athletic event, intensely practiced, is partly the sense of camaraderie among practitioners, but especially the focused mental “high,” excluding all else from one’s mental and physical being, they produce. Downsides of such activities include the physical risk they entail - one can be permanently injured or die - and the fact that old age is their enemy - most ultrasportspersons are forced to abandon their passion by their 60th birthday at the latest. (Though my endurance racing acquaintance is, with total focus steely determination, continuing to complete at age.


Drugs, of course, represent another path towards attaining the mental high that ultra marathons, equestrian endurance racing and other intensely practiced sports produce. The upside of drugs, especially in the brief pre-addictive period, is that no discipline is required to achieve the desired result. But the downside of drug use, of course, far outweighs these transient benefits. In a short period of time, they are addictive (though addiction can be an attribute of ultra sports as well) and are destructive to both body and mind.

Since a principal goal of ultra-sports, and drugs is a mental state of focus and exhilaration (the spiritually inclined might say ‘enlightenment’). It seems reasonable to ask whether or not such a mental state is attainable through mental activity alone. If possible, this would have the advantage of limited downside physical risk and might offer the advantage of greater insulation from the physical ravages of old age. Practitioners of meditation believe this is possible. Tibetan meditative practice, with which I have been struggling, seems to be a promising option. It embraces traditions spanning more than two millennia.

I have experimented periodically with meditative practices for many years. My religious affiliation is with the Society of Friends (the Quakers). ‘Listening’ for the ‘Still Small Voice’) of God, is central to Quaker practice. An an undergraduate, I studied the Spiritual Exercises of Jesuit founder St. Ignatius Loyola. Inspired by my friend and collaborator, Donella Meadows, I experimented with Zen meditation and related practices. For one entire year, between marriages, I wrote six haiku every day,which was a remarkable way to become more vividly aware of seasonal cycles and natural things.

About eighteen months ago I decided to make a fairly serious commitment to TIbetan meditative practice, using the Dalai Llama’s small volume, How to Practice: The Guide to a Meaningful Life (Atria Books, 2003) as my guide. I begin most days, in the early morning hours studying this book and striving, with very limited success, so far, to follow its precepts. It is my companion when I travel.

The practice, as I have come to understand it, begins with ‘morality,’ the avoidance of non virtues such as killing, stealing, sexual misconduct, lying, divisive talk, harsh speech, senseless chatter, covetousness, harmful intend and wrong views. The essence of Tibetan Buddhist morality is a belief that an innate desire to avoid pain and achieve happiness is something all sentient beings have in common. Its central message is “Help others. If that is not possible, do no harm.”

Morality provides the foundation for ‘concentrated meditation,’ a discipline that is intended to produce ‘calm abiding of the mind,’ leading, with sufficient practice, to a state described as the ‘mind of clear light,’ ‘enlightenment’ or ‘Nirvana.’

Meditative practice, seriously undertaken, does indeed appear able to produce somewhat similar mental states to drugs and extreme sports, along with more lasting benefits. However in this writings, The Dalai Lama urges would-be practitioners not to underestimate its rigors. The Lord Buddha lived for six years as an ascetic before attaining enlightenment and Tibetan Buddhists believe he was a reincarnation of a individual who had already attained enlightenment in many previous lives. The Dalai Lama, who has devoted a lifetime to meditative practice describes his own attainments with characteristic modesty. He also recounts the the account of another proficient meditator, who having experienced clear light of the mind, described the path he had followed to attainment as more rigorous than the tortures he had endured at the hands of Chinese Communist jailers during years of imprisonment.

In other words, serious meditative practice may, indeed, be an alternative to drugs and extreme sports, but it probably is not an option for the indolent, the impatient or the faint hearted.

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Sunday, August 16, 2009

Advice about marriage from a son to his father on the father's wedding day

Last weekend I attended the best wedding weekend ever, including my own. This was not only my opinion, it was shared by many who flew from far corners of the world - South Africa, Malawi, Israel, California, the state of Washington and many more - to attend. I will call the couple who were married, Edward and Alyssa. Edward’s son and his wife I will call Justin and Kaitland.

For me, a high point of the weekend - at a reception following the ceremony - was a speech that Justin gave to the assembled guests, both acknowledging his father and advising him on marriage. Their relationship was an unusual one. Edward raised Justin as a single father for most of his life. When he and Kaitland decided to share the same home, Edward offered to share his modest home and they all lived together for several years. When Edward and Alyssa, too, decided to share the same home, she, joined what became a close and supportive community of four. Eventually Justin and Kaitland married and, sometime afterward, purchased a home of their own, though Kaitland reported that she grieved for weeks at the separation.

Eventually, Edward and Alyssa decided to culminate their many years of friendship by marrying, occasioning the celebration I have been describing. By this time, Justin and Kaitland had been married several years. In an unusual ceremony that combined multiple ethnic and religious traditions, Kaitland and Justin ‘gave’ Edward to Alyssa at the moment when that traditionally occurs in Christian ceremonies.

Here is what Justin said to his father, culminating a moving acknowledgment of their years together. ‘Even though you and Alyssa have been friends for many years,’ he advised. ‘Marriage is different. Before you are married, even if you share the same home, you know there is the possibility that she will pack up and move out. The marriage commitment, which I know you both take seriously, changes things. Be sure you use this as an opportunity to deepen not only your love for one another, but your friendship with one another. Don’t let it become, even for one moment, an excuse to take each other for granted. In all the years we lived together,’ he concluded, ‘though you are both strong individuals, sometimes with differing views, I never heard either of you say a mean word to one another. Your relationship has been a model of how love, friendship, mutual respect and sometimes independent lives can go hand in hand. I pray that marriage will not change that.

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'The most fun day of the year!'

“I think this is the most fun day of the year.” Anderson Hall’s Resident Director told me yesterday morning. She was describing the first ‘moving in day’ of the new academic year. In a policy-change intended to make the moving-in process less logistically daunting, this first day is now restricted to new first-year students (who mostly still call themselves ‘freshmen’ rather than more politically correct term I have used.)

Apart from stepping in, occasionally, to help a parent or student with a specific problem, I play no role in the formalities of this complex process - directing traffic, assigning parking spaces, handing out keys, escorting students to their rooms, providing directions to nearby stores and answering multitudes of questions. My role, refined over the last seven years, is to serve up amenities, and to provide prospective students and parents with what may be their first one-on-one contact with the academic side of American University.

Friday night, I drove to the local Giant supermarket and loaded up with 12 quarts of orange juice, 3 gallons of apple juice, 16 lb. of fresh strawberries, six bags of chocolate-covered and eight bags of frosted mini-donuts, 6 lb. of assorted cheeses, 3 large pineapples, 4 12 packs of soft drinks, 3 lb. of coffee, 2 cartons of ice-cream bars and two cartons of popsicles. There is an advantage to seven years of faculty-resident experience. I know what ‘sells’ and how best to make snacks and drinks available.

As moving day dawned, bright, clear and cool, cars began to snake back from the ‘Letts-Anderson Quad,’ around the back of the building complex, through an adjacent parking lot and even to spill out onto Nebraska Avenue. Parents and prospective students began unloading piles of clothing, computers, bedding and much more miscellaneous ‘stuff,’ on the quad sidewalks, awaiting the 9 AM official opening time (we actually opened a few minutes early). On my amenities table, I had setup the ‘first course’ for moving in - coffee, tea, donuts, orange juice, apple juice and fresh strawberries. With setup completed, I began walking through the quad and then along the line of waiting cars, offering glasses of juice, fresh strawberries, and chunks of fresh pineapple. As always, even those who did not accept the proffered snacks mostly seemed amused and pleased by the apparition of a past-middle-aged-professor, garbed in a orange apron with a large name tag appearing outside their car window offering juice, strawberries and pineapple. Occasionally they would ask questions about logistics, my teaching or other aspects of university life, but mostly, they just smiled and expressed their thanks.

The process continued for the next six hours, by which time the crush of new arrivals had slackened and Friday night'spurchases were exhausted. My time was divided between resupplying amenities, handing out food and drink and occasional long conversations with parents and students. I talked horses with one mother who had been a professional jockey, international travel with students who shared their own experiences and had questions about study abroad, international business and politics with parents and students interested in those areas. Occasionally, I shared the experience of my 1983-AU-Graduate son who is now a successful international businessperson himself.

What always amazes me about moving in days is the good humor of parents and students. Most have driven long distances and waited in line for forty minutes or more. Children are leaving home, many for a first extended period, and embarking on daunting new challenges. Parents may be assuming a mountain of indebtedness in the hope of ensuring that sons or daughters will have a strong foundation for rewarding life careers. A senior Housing and Dining staff member commented to me near the end of the day - “it is amazing, I haven’t heard a single angry word...” There was a sort of baseball ‘Spring Traning’ feel about the day - that hopeful time when every team sees itself as a potential World Series Contender.

Perhaps not every parent and student would have described Saturday’s experiences as ‘the most fun day of their year’ but all that I saw rose to the challenge of this major family-life transition with a commendable mix of civility, mutual consideration and love.

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Sunday, August 09, 2009

Traveling via US Air - an experience to be avoided

Probably I should stop devoting space and energy to kvetching about bad airline customer service. But contrasts between the service I experienced last week on six Southwest Air segments and this morning, checking in with US Air, are so great that I cannot restrain myself. On Southwest the web reservations and on line check in systems worked flawlessly. Baggage check in lines were short, baggage checking was included in the price of the ticket. In four different cities, was were an abundance of cheerful, high energy customer service staff. Their commitment to making things work was obvious. From beginning to end, every encounter with Southwest made travel a positive experience.

One gropes for an appropriate metaphor to contrast my three days of Southwest Flying with this morning’s experience on US Air. Perhaps being suddenly plucked from Singapore’s International Airport and deposited at a New York Metropolitan Transit Station, deep in the South Bronx, at midnight, will capture the differences. The check in line at a single station was long. It grew longer as passengers struggled with a confusing online check in procedure while the staff member, an overwhelmed young woman offered only the most minimal assistance. I think she was doing her best. Was there anything positive? Only how passengers pitched in to help one another keep up their spirits and overcome adversity.

Sadly, Southwest Airlines does not yet fly from Washington National Airport. Service to East Coast destinations is limited. While it is certainly worth the long and expensive trip to Dulles or Baltimore Washington International, to escape the clutches of US Air and other ‘legacy’ airlines, sometimes that is not possible. The problem is not with front-line staff who, I believe, often struggle to do their best in difficult circumstances. The problem is bad management. One wonders if US Air senior managers have ever flown on Southwest Airlines.

One can only pray that US Air may soon go the way of Bear Sterns, Lehmann Brothers, Chrysler Corporation and General Motors, that the bonuses for failed senior managers will be modest and that there will be no government bailout. Is it too much to hope for that Southwest Airlines might take over the routes that US Air is now serving so badly?

PS: To be fair, I must note that once I boarded the plane, things improved. The plane was clean. The cabin crew were neatly dressed, pleasant and efficient. However they were not employed by US Air, but by Republic Airlines, under contract.

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Tuesday, August 04, 2009

How one man's sense of responsibility saved a young family's 'moving-in' day

My son, daughter in law and their family of two teenagers and two young children are relocating from Salt Lake City to Oakland. They purchased a spacious home, sent a pet on ahead with the teen agers and made plans for the move. The decided on a moving package with a major carrier that would pretty much cover everything including packing, unpacking and reinstallation of appliances.

All went well at the Salt Lake City end. Packers arrived and did their work competently. The big truck was loaded with family belongings, furnishings and the family car. My daughter and the two smallest family members embarked by plane and arrived on schedule, Saturday afternoon. After leaving the two youngest in the care of friends, the remaining five of us enjoyed a relaxed dinner out, and retired early, awaiting the big day. The unpacking crew was to arrive at 8AM, with the moving van from Salt Lake City to arrive soon afterwards.

Sunday morning dawned bright, cool and clear. I had forgotten how temperate the climate can be in the Bay area. Shortly before 8:00, the van driver called and my son set out to direct him to the small suburban cul-de-sac where the family’s new home was located. But where was the unpacking crew that the agent in Salt Lake city had arranged? They had not appeared. The moving Van arrived and we offered coffee to the driver and his fiancee, whom the family had gotten to know in Salt Lake City. Still the crew had not come. My daughter-in-law made repeated calls to the agent with whom she had contracted in Salt Lake City (and who had already been paid) - no answer. The driver made calls to the contact number he had been given in Oakland - no answer. It was 9:15. At 9:30 the our driver took the initiative - “I think I can find a crew, but they are in San Jose. It will take them a while to get here,” he told us.

The back up crew arrived in less than an hour, accompanied by the wife and daughter of one of them and the the unpacking began, 2 and a half hours late. At 1 PM, my son departed for the airport in a rush to meet a long planned speaking obligation. The girls were parked with friends. Four of us all pitched in with the crew as members of the same team. There was no thought of the unpacking that had been contracted, no assembling of appliances. In fact, the back up crew said they had no knowledge or skills in this area. While they had an excellent attitude, they seemed inexperienced.

By shortly after six, the truck and been unloaded. A few boxes had been unpacked, but most remained stacked in the garage our around the house. While my daughter completed some last checking of items, before signing the papers that would accept the shipment, the driver and I sat on a couch, positioned temporarily in the foyer and had a relaxed conversation. He was fifty years old and a immigrant from the South Pacific nation of Tonga, though he had lived in the US for many years and been in the moving business for more than twenty. He shared some information about Tonga, a country comprising a population of about 5 million living peacefully on 17 islands. We contrasted these tranquil circumstances with neighboring Fiji, which has been riven by ethnic strife between native Fijians and Indian immigrants. Then, as we continued to talk about his culture and its traditions, a surprising fact emerged. The ‘back up crew‘ from San Jose were not in the moving business at all. Faced with the prospect of postponing the move for an entire day, our driver called his cousin His cousin mobilized his three sons (along with wife and daughter). On the spur of the moment, they gave up their Sunday plans, drove to Oakland, pitched in and did what needed to be done.

It would be easy to write a diatribe about the moving company agents in Salt Lake City and Oakland who failed to their jobs, but what I will most remember about that memorable Sunday is the driver who, on his own initiative, did far more than his job required. He did it cheerfully, without complaining and without even mentioning that the back-up crew were his relatives. Hopefully he will be rewarded, if not in this life than in the next. His sense of responsibility gave us a gift that money couldn’t buy.

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Behaving like robots

In my often frustrating dealings with ‘customer service’ help lines, I am encountering a new technology, the automated voice. The voice is almost always female and relentlessly cheerful. I understand the purposes of this innovation. First and foremost, of course, it is intended to save money, by enabling human beings to be replaced by automatons. Second, it is intended to allow a broader range of responses, for clients with no internet access or lacking the skills to use it, than systems requiring the customer to punch in a limited range of responses on a keypad.

In due course I believe such systems, if designed by human beings with creativity, humanity and intelligence, may represent a breakthrough. The artificial intelligence literature has long offered philosophical discussions of systems were human subjects were unable to distinguish, in conversation, between the responses of human and ‘artificial’ subjects. In his Foundation Trilogy, Isaac Asimov writes about robots that are more caring, intelligent and empathetic than the human beings they ‘serve.’

But we are a long way from that promised land. The present generation of robotic customer service mavens as a limited repertoire and is confused by anything approaching nuanced conversation in a normal tone of voice. The challenge for human beings on the other end of the line is to speak slow and distinctly, answering the robotic questions using a robotic vocabulary and in a robotic point of voice.

This is the paradox of robotic consumer service mavens at their present stage of development. The goal of their designers has been to create cost-saving systems in which robots behave like humans. But the results of their efforts, so far, are systems where, in order to get the information or services they need, we human beings are forced to behave like robots.

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