To Do – or Not To Do

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Maybe it’s my upbringing, maybe it’s my career choice, but I am more wedded to “To Do Lists” than anyone I know.

They’ve worked – up to a point. But they are also a source of guilt (I never seem to get to the end of them). That’s why I read Patricia Hampl’s recent piece with such interest. Here’s how she begins:

Life, if you’re lucky, is divided into thirds, my father used to say: youth, middle age and “You look good.” The dawn of that third stage is glinting right at me.

It isn’t simply that at this point more life is behind me — behind any middle-aged person — than lies ahead. Middle-aged? Who am I kidding? Who do you know who’s 144?

It’s not just about aging. By the time you’ve worked long enough, hard enough, real life begins to reveal itself as something other than effort, other than accomplishment. Real life wishes to be left to its own purposeless devices.

This isn’t sloth. It isn’t even exhaustion. It’s a late-arriving awareness of consciousness existing for its own sake.

The to-do list that runs most lives through middle age turns out, in this latter stage of existence, to have only one task: to waste life in order to find it. Who said that? Or something like that. Jesus? Buddha? Bob Dylan? Somebody who knew what’s what.

Mine was the first year of the notorious American baby boom, 1946. The year three of our recent presidents were born: Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, Donald Trump. “You’re a boomer!” we were always told, as if we were named for the bomb, that midcentury annihilator.

We got all the good stuff.

The postwar hope and determination of our Depression-era parents was piled upon us, the fossil fuel of earlier generations we burned up without a care. We had a preposterously long sense of our own youthfulness.

But now the boomers are approaching the other side. Not death necessarily (though the time has begun when no one will say we were cut down too early). We’re reaching the other side of striving.

You should try meditating or maybe yoga — yoga’s good,” someone said when I mentioned my fevered to-do lists, the sometimes alarming blood pressure readings, the dark-night-of-the-soul insomnia.

But meditating is just another thing. Yoga? Another task, another item for the to-do list.

This battle between striving and serenity may be distinctly American. The struggle between toil and the dream of ease is an American birthright, the way a Frenchman expects to have decent wine at a reasonable price, and the whole month of August on vacation.

Want more? You can read the full piece here

An Example for All

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Few U.S. First Ladies were as respected – even revered – as Barbara Bush. It is no surprise that there has been an avalanche of tributes to the wife – and mother – of presidents.

One piece that I found especially on-point was an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal entitled: “When Barbara Bush Visited Wellesley.” Here is part of what Peggy Dooley said:

Protests, politics, controversy and Russians! No, not today’s headlines— Barbara Bush’s 1990 commencement address at Wellesley College.

That spring, the Cold War was winding down, Donald Trump was king of the New York tabloids for nothing having to do with politics, and the first lady was the subject of a national controversy. Days after she was announced in March as Wellesley’s commencement speaker, 150 students at the prestigious women’s college in suburban Massachusetts signed petitions declaring themselves “outraged” at the choice of someone who’d ridden to prominence on her husband’s coattails rather than her own merit.

That spurred a coast-to-coast discussion on feminism and the role of women in modern-day America, and everyone weighed in, from President Bush to David Letterman. It went on for months, in contrast with the story-cycle-burst-then-on-to-the-next that we see today.

The speech was carried live on the major TV networks—there were three of them then—a first for a first lady. Accompanied by her Soviet counterpart, Raisa Gorbachev —a U.S.-Soviet summit was going on in Washington—she arrived on the dais to raucous applause.

Barbara Bush was a week away from turning 65 on that day, June 1. She was famous for her white hair, her pearls and, yes, for being the wife of the president. No, she wasn’t the secretary of state delivering the latest policy on the Middle East. She wasn’t a billionaire sharing a story of rising to the top. “Just” a housewife, those protesting students had intimated. What could she possibly have to say?

“For several years, you’ve had impressed upon you the importance to your career of dedication and hard work,” she said. “That’s true. But as important as your obligations as a doctor, lawyer or business leader will be, you are a human being first and those human connections—with spouses, with children, with friends—are the most important investments you will ever make.”

Make an “effort to learn about and respect difference, to be compassionate with one another, to cherish our own identity and to accept unconditionally the same in others.”

She said she hoped the students would consider making three very important choices: believe in something larger than yourself, find the joy in life (“It’s supposed to be fun!”), and cherish your human connections. “At the end of your life,” she said, “you will never regret not having passed one more test, not winning one more verdict or not closing one more deal. You will regret time not spent with a husband, a child, a friend or a parent.”

She wrapped up saying she hoped each graduate would realize her dream in life. “And who knows?” she said. “Somewhere out in this audience may even be someone who will one day follow in my footsteps, and preside over the White House as the president’s spouse. I wish him well!”

With that, she brought down the house. Mic-drop, as we’d say today.

And all this from “just” a housewife. Imagine that.

Want more? You can read the full article here

Keeping the Faith

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This month marks the fiftieth anniversary of the assassination of the nation’s – and the world’s – preeminent civil rights leader, Dr. Martin Luther King. A good deal of ink has been spilled summarizing the life and legacy of Dr. King, and there is likely little new to report on with this blog post.

That said, a New York Times article by Michael Dyson spoke to me regarding important aspects of Dr. King’s life, and especially what he believed in. Here’s how he began:

In June 1966, less than two years before he was killed, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. preached from his Atlanta pulpit of the dynamic dance between Good Friday and Easter, between death and resurrection, between despair and hope.

“The church must tell men that Good Friday is as much a fact of life as Easter; failure is as much a fact of life as success; disappointment is as much a fact of life as fulfillment,” he said. Dr. King added that God didn’t promise us that we would avoid “trials and tribulations” but that “if you have faith in God, that God has the power to give you a kind of inner equilibrium through your pain.”

From nearly the moment he emerged on the national scene in the mid-1950s until his tragic end in 1968, 10 days before Easter, Dr. King was hounded by death. It was his deep faith that saw him through his many trials and tribulations until the time he was fatally shot on that motel balcony at 6:01 p.m. on April 4 in Memphis.

Faith summoned Dr. King, an ordained Baptist preacher, to the ministry. It made him a troublemaker for Jesus and it led him to criticize the church, criticize the world around him and, in turn, be criticized for those things. In honoring his legacy today, we must not let complacency or narrow faith blind us to what needs to trouble us too.

Want more? You can read the full article here

Holding America Together

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Ever feel like our country is coming apart. Divisive politics seems to rule the day. Are we on the verge of fracturing as a nation?

Not so says David Brooks in his insightful piece, “What Holds America Together.” It gave me pause and I think it will give you something to think about. Here is how he begins:

Last week I went to Houston to see the rodeo. That rodeo is not like other rodeos. It’s gigantic. It goes for 20 days. There can be up to 185,000 people on the grounds in a single day and they are of all human types — rural ranchers, Latino families, African immigrants, drunken suburban housewives out for a night on the town.

When you are lost in that sea of varied humanity, you think: What on earth holds this nation together? The answer can be only this: Despite our differences, we devote our lives to the same experiment, the American experiment to draw people from around the world and to create the best society ever, to serve as a model for all humankind.

Unity can come only from a common dedication to this experiment. The American consciousness can be formed only by the lab reports we give one another about that experiment — the jeremiads, speeches, songs and conversations that describe what the experiment is for, where it has failed and how it should proceed now.

One of my favorites of these lab reports is Walt Whitman’s essay “Democratic Vistas,” published in 1871. The purpose of democracy, Whitman wrote, is not wealth, or even equality; it is the full flowering of individuals. By dispersing responsibility to all adults, democracy “supplies a training school for making first class men.” It is “life’s gymnasium.” It forges “freedom’s athletes” — strong and equal women, courageous men, deep-souled people capable of governing themselves.

Want more? You can read the full piece here

Our Enlightenment

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For many, “The Enlightenment” is little more than a forgotten term from our history books. Some of us might remember that The Enlightenment was an intellectual and philosophical movement that dominated the world of ideas in Europe during the 18th century. But most of us would argue that in today’s world isn’t one that feels much like The Enlightenment.

Not so says Steven Pinker, author of “The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined,” and more recently, Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress.” Here’s how he opens his article in the Wall Street Journal:

For all their disagreements, the left and the right concur on one thing: The world is getting worse. Whether the decline is visible in inequality, racism and pollution, or in terrorism, crime and moral decay, both sides see profound failings in modernity and a deepening crisis in the West. They look back to various golden ages when America was great, blue-collar workers thrived in unionized jobs, and people found meaning in religion, family, community and nature.

Such gloominess is decidedly un-American. The U.S. was founded on the Enlightenment ideal that human ingenuity and benevolence could be channeled by institutions and result in progress. This concept may feel naive as we confront our biggest predicaments, but we can only understand where we are if we know how far we’ve come.

You can always fool yourself into seeing a decline if you compare rose-tinted images of the past with bleeding headlines of the present. What do the trajectories of the nation and world look like when we measure human well-being over time with a constant yardstick? Let’s look at the numbers (most of which can be found on websites such as OurWorldinData, HumanProgress and Gapminder).

Consider the U.S. just three decades ago. Our annual homicide rate was 8.5 per 100,000. Eleven percent of us fell below the poverty line (as measured by consumption). And we spewed 20 million tons of sulfur dioxide and 34.5 million tons of particulate matter into the atmosphere.

Fast forward to the most recent numbers available today. The homicide rate is 5.3 (a blip up from 4.4 in 2014). Three percent of us fall below the consumption poverty line. And we emit four million tons of sulfur dioxide and 20.6 million tons of particulates, despite generating more wealth and driving more miles.

Are the ideals of the Enlightenment too tepid to engage our animal spirits? Is the conquest of disease, famine, poverty, violence and ignorance … boring? Do people need to believe in magic, a father in the sky, a strong chief to protect the tribe, myths of heroic ancestors?

I don’t think so. Secular liberal democracies are the happiest and healthiest places on earth, and the favorite destinations of people who vote with their feet. And once you appreciate that the Enlightenment project of applying knowledge and sympathy to enhance human flourishing can succeed, it’s hard to imagine anything more heroic and glorious.

Want more? You can read the full article here

China Power

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For most of the post-World War II era, Americans have worried about the ideology of those who opposed us. It was “Communist ideology” that we feared. After the Soviet Union imploded and China – a Communist country – began to rise, it was easy, and even natural, to assume that America is now facing a new “Communist ideology” that must be dealt with.

That is why I found Edward Wong’s piece, “A Chinese Empire Reborn,” so valuable. The author reveals that we must understand that China isn’t about ideology, it’s about power. He says:

From trade to the internet, from higher education to Hollywood, China is shaping the world in ways that people have only begun to grasp. Yet the emerging imperium is more a result of the Communist Party’s exercise of hard power, including economic coercion, than the product of a gravitational pull of Chinese ideas or contemporary culture.

Of the global powers that dominated the 19th century, China alone is a rejuvenated empire. The Communist Party commands a vast territory that the ethnic-Manchu rulers of the Qing dynasty cobbled together through war and diplomacy. And the dominion could grow: China is using its military to test potential control of disputed borderlands from the South China Sea to the Himalayas, while firing up nationalism at home. Once again, states around the world pay homage to the court, as in 2015 during a huge military parade.

For decades, the United States was a global beacon for those who embraced certain values — the rule of law, free speech, clean government and human rights. Even if policy often fell short of those stated ideals, American “soft power” remained as potent as its armed forces. In the post-Soviet era, political figures and scholars regarded that American way of amassing power through attraction as a central element of forging a modern empire.

China’s rise is a blunt counterpoint. From 2009 onward, Chinese power in domestic and international realms has become synonymous with brute strength, bribery and browbeating — and the Communist Party’s empire is getting stronger.

At home, the party has imprisoned rights lawyers, strangled the internet, compelled companies and universities to install party cells, and planned for a potentially Orwellian “social credit” system. Abroad, it is building military installations on disputed Pacific reefs and infiltrating cybernetworks. It pushes the “One Belt, One Road” infrastructure initiative across Eurasia, which will have benefits for other nations but will also allow China to pressure them to do business with Chinese state-owned enterprises, as it has done in recent years throughout Asia and Africa.

Chinese citizens and the world would benefit if China turns out to be an empire whose power is based as much on ideas, values and culture as on military and economic might. It was more enlightened under its most glorious dynasties. But for now, the Communist Party embraces hard power and coercion, and this could well be what replaces the fading liberal hegemony of the United States on the global stage. It will not lead to a grand vision of world order. Instead, before us looms a void.

Want to read more.

Embrace Gratitude

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Ever pause to count your blessings – to consider what you are grateful for? Most of us don’t, but if we did, we’d likely be happier, perhaps vastly so.

That’s why I was struck by Jennifer Breheny Wallace’s piece, An Attitude of Gratitude, and wanted to share part of it with you. Here is how she begins:

Kathleen Cormier, a mother from suburban Minneapolis, is trying to instill a sense of gratitude in her sons, ages 12 and 17. But sometimes she wonders if other parents have given up.

Some of her sons’ peers, she says, are lacking in the basics of gratitude, such as looking adults in the eye to thank them. The saddest part, she says, is that many parents don’t even expect their children to be grateful anymore. They are accustomed to getting no acknowledgment for, say, devoting their weekend to driving from activity to activity. There is “such a lack of respect,” she says.

Every generation seems to complain that children “these days” are so much more entitled and ungrateful than in years past. This time, they might be right. In today’s selfie culture, which often rewards bragging and arrogance over kindness and humility, many people are noticing a drop-off in everyday expressions of gratitude.

In a 2012 national online poll of 2,000 adults, commissioned by the John Templeton Foundation, 59% of those surveyed thought that most people today are “less likely to have an attitude of gratitude than 10 or 20 years ago.” The youngest group, 18- to 24-year-olds, were the least likely of any age group to report expressing gratitude regularly (only 35%) and the most likely to express gratitude for self-serving reasons (“it will encourage people to be kind or generous to me”).

Want more? You can read the full piece here.

Better than Ever?

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Tired of the gloom and doom? Weary of hearing how the world is “going to hell in a hand basket?” If so, you can understand why Steven Pinker’s first book, “The Better Angels of Our Nature,” was a runaway best-seller, and why his newest offering, “Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress,” has quickly achieved that status.

Pinker isn’t some wide-eyed, giddy optimist. Instead, he marshals facts and figures to make his case that things are getting better. Here is an excerpt from a New York Times review:

Optimism is not generally thought cool, and it is often thought foolish. The optimistic philosopher John Stuart Mill wrote in 1828, “I have observed that not the man who hopes when others despair, but the man who despairs when others hope, is admired by a large class of persons as a sage.” In the previous century, Voltaire’s “Candide” had attacked what its author called “optimism”: the Leibnizian idea that all must be for the best in this best of all possible worlds. After suffering through one disaster after another, Candide decides that optimism is merely “a mania for insisting that all is well when things are going badly.”

Much of the book is taken up with evidence-based philosophizing, with charts showing a worldwide increase in life expectancy, a decline in life-shattering diseases, ever better education and access to information, greater recognition of female equality and L.G.B.T. rights, and so on — even down to data showing that Americans today are 37 times less likely to be killed by lightning than in 1900, thanks to better weather forecasting, electrical engineering and safety awareness. Improvements in health have bettered the human condition enormously, and Pinker tells us that his favorite sentence in the whole English language comes from Wikipedia: “Smallpox was an infectious disease caused by either of two virus variants, Variola major and Variola minor.” The word “wasis what he likes.

Want more? You can read the full article here.

The Graduate

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In the holiday whirl you may have missed something. I knew I did. That’s why I got a wake-up call when I read Lisa Schwarzbaum’s piece that reminded me that the movie, The Graduate, was 50 years old last month!

For baby-boomers and perhaps others, this was a generational movie. One that signaled the end of an old era and the beginning of a new one. I’d held that belief for decades – five to be exact – and Schwarzbaum’s book review solidified that belief.

She reviewed Beverly Gray’s book: “Seduced by Mrs. Robinson: How ‘The Graduate” Became the Touchstone of a Generation.” The title of the book spoke precisely to how I felt about the movie.

While Schwarzbaum’s book review had some issues with Gray’s book, her review did highlight what made the movie so iconic. Here is part of what she said:

A half-century has passed since the bewildered college graduate Benjamin Braddock, played with star-making originality by a then largely unknown Dustin Hoffman, floated, directionless, in his parents’ glassy Beverly Hills pool, and was told (by someone of his Parents’ Generation) that the future lay in “plastics.” It has been a half-century since Anne Bancroft smoldered as the seductive Mrs. Robinson, an unhappy woman who was the opposite of bewildered — an adult mature enough to know she was trapped in the hell of plastic marital conventions. It has been 50 years since Hoffman, Bancroft and the incandescently creative team of the director Mike Nichols and the screenwriter Buck Henry took Charles Webb’s small 1963 novel of domestic discontents and turned it into a movie that epitomized huge shifts in both popular culture and Hollywood commerce.

Want more? You can read the full piece here

Brain Workout

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Most of us likely made New Year’s resolutions, many of which we may have broken already. But for many of us, the promise to live calmly and peacefully may be one we still aspire to – but perhaps haven’t yet achieved.

That’s why I found this piece by Elizabeth Bernstein, “A Daily Workout for the Brain,” with a subtitle of: “Stressed Out, Anxious or Sad? Try Meditating,” so interesting – and even inspirational. Here is part of Daniel Goleman’s advice that she shared:

Every kind of meditation retrains attention. It’s the basic mental-fitness exercise. Ordinarily, our mind wanders half the time. In meditation, you bring discipline to the mind and try to keep it focused on one thing. When your mind wanders, you bring it back to that thing. This is roughly parallel to going to the gym and lifting weights. Every time you lift the weight, you make that muscle a little stronger. And every time you bring your mind back to your meditation, you make the neural circuitry in your brain a little stronger.

There are many beneficial effects of this simple exercise. Attention strengthens. Concentration improves. Memory improves. Learning improves. And because the same circuitry in the brain that focuses your attention also manages the amygdala, which causes you to get anxious or upset or depressed, people have a double benefit: They react less strongly to things that used to upset them and recover more quickly when they do get upset.

Want more? You can read the full article here