Monday, May 30, 2011


May 24, 2011

Though I wouldn’t have wished for it, my final days as Anderson Hall Resident would not have been complete without a fire alarm evacuation. Evacuations almost always occur in the small hours of the early morning: today’s was at 5AM. They are announced with ear splitting gongs and flashing strobe lights. Sleepy students (and at this time of the year, a few adults in addition to myself) pour out of our three buildings and stand, sit or lie on the curbs and adjoining grass. At least in the summer months – now – it is not freezing cold.

Some years ago, a friend provided an idea that has helped me lighten this bleak experience – handing out candy. I set aside one of my large salad bowls, filled it with wrapped Reese, Mounds, Butterfinger and Reese Butter Bars, and began distributing the contents to my partially comatose neighbors. Later, I added a flashing red light, borrowed from the back of my bicycle. The way students gravitate towards my light brings to mind the way sacred goldfish in one Kyoto, Japan temple pond gravitate to food pellets that worshippers and tourists provide for them.

Often this now traditional custom lightens the atmosphere. It evokes amused smiles, thank yous and even an occasional “we love you!” A septuagenarian, sarong-clad Professor distributing candy in a bowl festooned with a flashing red light belies customary student images of a “faculty member.” My practice (along with other Dormgrandpop activities) has been mentioned in campus publications, the Washington Post, the Washington Times and an Associated Press news story, several years ago, that received wide national distribution.

This early morning was the same as most until I reached a small group of adults (I assume they were coaches of young women’s field hockey teams who were visiting campus for a competition). One of them, a dark haired adult woman with oversized glasses accosted me as I passed by. “Please don’t offer candy to our students!” she said firmly.

I was not only nonplussed; but also irritated – so surprised at this first-ever reaction to my largesse that I simply said nothing and walked away. Soon, the bells ceased and we returned to our rooms for a few minutes of sleep before the workday began. But I did not forget the incident.

Later, I had to opportunity to reflect on my reaction, with the realization that, after several years of meditative practice, my journey on the path towards attaining altruistic compassion remains a long one. Instead of remaining silent, I could have expressed thanks for this concern with her student’s well-being. I could have asked that she identify her students so I could be sure to skip over them (perhaps with an explanation). I could have asked her to recommend more healthy snacks that I could provide during the next evacuation. I could have sought to enroll her as my partner in distributing them. Instead, I simply felt irritated and walked away. The incident, including the irritation, remained with me. The Dalai Lama and other teachers – Buddhist and Christian - whose works I am studying would have done better, as I must in the future.

This tale has a postscript. The next afternoon I encountered three young-women hockey competitors who were watching television in a lounge across the hall from my apartment. They were Princeton students and we shared experiences from our Ivy League educations and athletic competitions. Rowing was my intercollegiate sport, though only for three semesters. In course of our conversation, asked about the prohibition against eating candy. My teammates and I had often eaten candy and gulped from jars of honey before a race in the hope the sugar would provide us with an energy burst. The young women looked puzzled. “Who told you not to hand out candy?” they asked. “We do have training rules of course, but a prohibition against eating candy certainly isn’t one of them!”


Sunday, May 29, 2011

A customer service "good news" story

May 27, 2011

I am in the process of completing a complex legal and financial transaction related to a major purchase. Among those involved were real estate agents, management companies, bank staff, attorneys and brokers. Since we are constantly warned about information being stolen from internet sources and then put to nefarious uses, I am being more circumspect about the details than I once might have been.

It is worth taking time to acknowledge (I hope I am not being premature, since there is one more step to be completed) the number of competent, congenial, proactive individuals I have encountered. They included two realtors, my financial management firm, my bank (both the local branch and headquarters) and-on-the ground property managers. There was only one weak link in the chain, an off-site property management staff member who provided inaccurate financial information in a transfer document and required repeated promptings and reminders, from several sources, to make the necessary corrections.

All of us have horror stories to tell about dealing with the bureaucracies of health care providers, insurance companies, IT support organizations (with the exception of Apple) and government bureaucracies such as the Social Security Administration. A close acquaintance often shares this concern, in frustration: “We have college educations, reasonable incomes, internet connectivity and a degree of IT literacy. How do are fellow-citizens, particularly the elderly, who may have none of these get the support they need and protect themselves from getting scammed and cheated.”

That being the case I wanted to share the following excerpt from a letter of acknowledgement I wrote to one of my financial advisors. He is not located in Washington. Our connection has only been by Email, paper correspondence and telephone. But in this recent and many other occasions, he has demonstrated what is possible in a well-managed organization that recruits high-quality professionals with integrity and then empowers them to do their very best. My letter follows:

Dear Edward,

Thank you for both your phone message and email. I checked my account balance on line, this morning, and the funds were available. However I decided I would complete the bank process before getting back to you. All went smoothly and believe we will be ready to complete our transaction early next week..

Please know that I do not for a moment take lightly the consideration, effort and skill that you brought to the process of making these funds available, on relatively short notice. At every step along the way, I had complete confidence that if there was a way to have things go smoothly, in a timely manner, you would find it.

Sadly we have entered in era when, in the name of “efficiency,” we must often seek “customer support” from indifferent, faceless minions employed by disembodied bureaucracies, situated in distant locations. With this reality as normal, the engagement high quality support, congeniality and professionalism that I have come to know as your hallmark is not only to be gratefully acknowledged, but celebrated and cherished.

With best regards and best wishes.



Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Taking Time...

Sunday afternoon’s commencement ceremony was the last of several events where my completion of 36 years as a School of International Service faculty member and an American University faculty administrator was acknowledged. The event did not mark a sharp bifurcation, of course. After greeting graduating students and their parents in and around our magnificent SIS building, I simply returned to 101 Anderson Hall, hung my academic robes in the closet and cooked a light dinner.

Then I returned to reading and commenting on “substantial research papers,” which have taken the place of MA theses for most of our graduate students. One paper proposes a microenterprise initiative to be established in Argentina, A second seeks to understand political violence and unrest, between nations and over time, in Africa. A third assesses human rights education in India and Bangladesh. A fourth examines “Women’s Intersecting Vulnerabilities in Post-Disaster Areas and Their Implications” focusing on a cyclone in Bangladesh an earthquake in Maharashtra, an earthquake in northern Pakistan and the South/Southeast Asian Tsunami. The authors of these papers are all international students, from Argentina, the Philippines, India and China.

The myriad of tasks that filled Monday were much the same as usual - more correcting papers, responding to emails, and meeting with a doctoral student to review her research. There was one exciting bit of personal business however, I rode my bicycle to Georgetown for a meeting that confirmed a deal I had been negotiating to buy a condominium apartment near the university. While my status at AU will be “Professor Emeritus,” living close by will enable me, when I am in the US, to retain ties with American University and, in fact, to more fully enjoy the myriad of events the campus offers to students, faculty, staff and neighbors. When one’s time is less rigorously programmed by work obligations, maintaining contact with an engaged community becomes even more important.

About 7 PM, I broke with my customary routine - which normally involves work until 10 PM or even later. I put my computer to sleep and took time for a relaxed walk about the campus. Thanks largely to the efforts of former President Benjamin Ladner, who mandated hiring of a full-time landscape architect, our campus grounds are distinctively beautiful, and especially so in the early evening twilight. On Monday evening, careful grooming, so that AU’s best face would be shown to graduates and their parents, was still evident. There were beds of blue, white, and magenta flowers everywhere. Shrubbery was meticulously trimmed and garden beds weeded. The newly mowed lawns were a vivid green. Long rays of early evening sunlight, caught the leaves of trees surrounding our campus center and made them stand out vividly.

Only a few human beings are blessed with the opportunity to live and work in such a beautiful setting, especially for more than three decades, as in my case. As I did yesterday evening, I need to take more time to appreciate this beauty, and to be thankful.