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Archive for the ‘Optimism’ Category

Just yesterday, as I was meeting with two of my staffers, the subject of my birthday came up and one of my most trusted colleagues asked me how old I would be.

“55,” I answered.

“Wow, that’s a big number,” she responded and almost instantly began backpedaling. “I mean a significant number. You know, a big milestone. An important date.”

We laughed at her quick thinking and her instinctive ability to quickly recast her words when they have been wrongly interpreted. It’s something my whole staff does well, and in public relations – our line of work – it’s an invaluable skill.

But she’s right on both counts. It is a big number in both of those senses.

I don’t know where I thought I’d be when I reached the point of being entitled to the senior menu at my favorite restaurant or discounted coffee at fast food places. But I never would have imagined it to be here – in central Maine, living on a lake, serving as vice president at an elite liberal arts college, heading up a talented and energized group of professionals like my now red-faced friend. Nor could I have imagined nearly twenty years with my beautiful wife, the paths my kids’ lives are taking, and how much I would have come to love a dog … my dog. So I’m looking back today, awed by the circuitous and sometimes sideways path led me here.

But here’s the weird thing. I’m looking forward, as well. I’m thinking about many many more years with my wife, about watching my kids become adult versions of the magnificent creatures they already are. And I’m thinking about all the work left to be done here at Colby, about how great it feels to stoke the creative fire in a group of talented people and watch what happens.

About beaches I’ve yet to visit, and Irish pubs that are waiting for my arrival, and about the short stories and novels I’ve yet to read. And the ones I’ve yet to write.

So given all this, 55 seems an appropriate number. It’s the same coming and going. It looks back just as well as it looks forward.

Lucky me.

(A note: this morning that same staffer reminded me that she said “That’s a big ONE,” not a big “number.” See? I told you she was good.)

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I love NPR. Every day, no matter when or how much I’m able to listen, I get a surprise. Like this story on Paul Thorn, a long-time favorite and an incredibly under-appreciated singer-songwriter. Or this one, about Facebook’s comparatively small advertising revenue (Planet Money rocks). Or, this morning, this one, about the media landscape in Afghanistan.

Buried in that report is this statistic — 60 percent of the Afghan population is under 20 years old. Think about that for a minute. Just imagine that generation as they come of age — what they’ve experienced, what they’ve learned, what they’ve seen, and what they know of us.

That thought hit me especially hard this morning because this weekend, my son will be graduating from the high school drama program at University of North Carolina School of the Arts. My daughter, who dances with the Bossov Ballet at Maine Central Institute, has just started learning to drive. These are seminal moments in a child’s life, the kind of moments I’ve written about here before. And, if your parenting is anything like ours, you devote a tremendous amount of time, attention, and (often) money engineering your life and your children’s lives so that these kinds of moments come.

I look at it as leading my children down a passageway defined by our belief system and our worldview and our ideas about what is right and good … and what is not. And that passageway is lined with doors, each one representing an opportunity for growth and direction. Each one is an opportunity for forward motion, for taking the first steps toward rich, productive and — we hope — the happiest of lives.

We don’t push them through. We simply try to make sure that we open as many as we can, explain to our children what the landscape beyond that door might hold, and then let them choose whether or not they want to walk through it. For my son, this has meant a second-degree black belt in Tae Kwon Do, the release of two CDs, including a complete solo project – words, music, instruments, recording, even clapping — and now some impressive acting chops to take with him to Drew University in the fall. My daughter spent nearly two years dancing with the Kirov Academy of Ballet in Washington, DC before switching to the Bossov. She’s an amazing and dedicated dancer, and shows incredible promise as a thinker and a writer. There are many, many doors yet to come for her, but I know they will open, and I know she will choose wisely.

And what of a similar generation in Afghanistan? Or Pakistan? Or rural Maine, for that matter? What doors are being opened for them? Or, perhaps more tellingly, what doors will remain forever and always closed?

It’s commencement season here at Colby College and at high schools and colleges across the country. And  whether or not we have participants in those ceremonies, we all have plenty of reasons to celebrate these new beginnings — all the things that are commencing. But this morning, at least for a moment, I had reason to think about other young lives, lives without open doors and new beginnings, and what my obligation might be to them.

Thanks, NPR.

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It’s about 11:30 when I finally make it upstairs  – a little later than my normal bedtime. So maybe I’m not as clearheaded as I might have been in the middle of the day. Maybe I’m hallucinating.

But what I see is this – the lake, silvery in the strong moonlight, pulses, subtly heaving up and down, as though it’s breathing. I move closer, standing close enough now for my breath to fog the floor-to-ceiling windows a bit, and I can see that maybe it’s not pulsing after all, but it’s in some sort of steady motion all the same.

After a moment, it’s clear that from somewhere to the west, down the length of the open water, an almost imperceptible force – not quite wind – is nudging the water eastward, bouncing it off the rocky shore in front of our house at an odd angle, and that combination of waves and wind and shore and moonlight is creating something I’ve never seen before.

Living here on the shore of Messalonskee Lake in Central Maine, it’s not unusual for me to see the water in a way I’ve never seen it before. In fact, it’s become commonplace, a source of almost daily fascination. Some days it might be a strange band of dark still water bisecting the otherwise variegated surface. Some days it might be a concentration of irregularly shaped rings scattered randomly across the surface in the lee of Blake’s Island. And some days, especially in the thick morning fog, the water is indistinguishable from the land or the sky on the horizon.

But here’s the deal: it’s always the same lake. The shore never shifts. Blake’s Island never moves. The treeline opposite me varies in color only. So given those parameters only, one might reasonably expect constancy. Not so.

Standing there before the window and the silvery breathing surface of the lake, it occurs to me that maybe life is like this, too. Most of the parameters of my days seem fixed — same routines, same job, same relationships. There’s not a lot of variance in them, and usually, I regard that constancy as a blessing.

But suppose my days demanded my attention the way the lake seems to do? Suppose I was powerfully drawn to stop and look – I mean really look – at any given moment? Would I see something I’ve never seen before?

Then I’d really be one lucky man.

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Because I am a creature of habit, I see them around 5:30 nearly every morning as I make my way to the gym. They are both smallish, probably in their mid-60s. And even though it’s still pretty dark that early, I can see that they resemble one another in the way that long-married couples often do — both seem to have pretty much the same haircut, the same glasses, and even the same slightly stooped posture and cramped gait. Thankfully, they are wearing matching reflective vests — the kind normally sported by highway workers — so the handful of us who are out this early have no trouble spotting them from a pretty good ways away. It’s clear they are walking for exercise, though not just exercise, for as they make their way along the street, they stoop to pick up empty water bottles or hot dog boxes or stray plastic bags, anything that’s accumulated along the curb since the previous morning. And this morning when I see them, I think of Bill Gates.

It’s a stretch, I know. Though he may do so, I find it hard to imagine that Bill Gates spends much time in a reflective vest picking up trash. In fact years ago, I read an funny piece in Harper’s by Brad Templeton that calculated that it wouldn’t be worth the software titan’s time to even stop to pick up a $1000 bill (that number has long since increased, I’m sure). But Bill Gates, along with Warren Buffet and a few dozen other billionaires, have just pledged to do something very interesting — give away the majority of their wealth to philanthropic causes through an initiative called The Giving Pledge.

It’s an admirable gesture, I think, one that has the power to make a significant impact in the philanthropic landscape. But there’s a risk here, too. By hearkening back to the days of the billionaire philanthropists of old — the Carnegies, the Rockefellers, the Vanderbilts — we may find it easier to imagine that giving back is the obligation of only that rarefied class. The gesture they are making is so far beyond the capacity, even the imagination, of most of us that it can, if viewed from a certain perspective, seem utterly foreign.

I have the good fortune to work in a trade in which I continually see evidence of giving in action. I routinely meet and write about those who have given thousands, tens of thousands, even millions to a cause they deem worthy, and I get to see firsthand how transformational their generosity can be. Students who might not otherwise have had a chance to earn a degree graduate and join the workforce. Research discoveries that may have remained hidden are brought forth, carrying with them the potential to change our world. Scholars who have much to offer and little time to articulate it find the intellectual breathing room to help us understand more about who we are.

Yet when I think of this couple scuttling along in the predawn light reflecting back my headlights, I’m thinking that they, too, are giving back. They are making a small, silent, almost unseen gesture that edifies their community and, by extension, them. They are acting on an impulse that exists in all of us, no matter how hard we may seek ways to stifle it, and that is the impulse to give something back. Time. Talent. Treasure. It doesn’t matter.

I’m glad to see the list of billionaires who have taken the pledge to give back, just as I’m glad to see the quiet gestures of the remarkably ordinary folks who take the time to enrich something besides themselves. For both remind me of the richness of our lives, and our deep-seated and abiding obligation to share some of that richness.

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Home of the IndiansThese are pretty big days in our house, at least for my soon-to-be 16-year-old son. Last week, he started his first job at a local grocery store, and this week he starts driver’s ed. It’s not so hard to see that, in many ways, these are significant milestones in his life, milestones that mark a time when his circle — his entire world, really — begins to expand at a pretty dramatic pace. This is just Point A, and I spend no small amount of time wondering what other waypoints he’ll pass in his lifetime, and what he will make of it all.

Usually, it’s pretty hard for me to remember that far back in my own life, back to a time when so many possibilities stretched out before me, and so few had been ruled out. Maybe that’s why, when a handful of my friends from those days took the time and trouble to put together a reunion for the Portage High School Class of 1975, my initial interest didn’t really go beyond a passing curiosity. Most of my memories just didn’t seem strong enough to warrant the 12 hour drive north from the mountains of Virginia to the shores of Lake Michigan.

But as the days passed and the friend requests kept coming in, I felt something stir, something that went beyond curiosity. Names that held only a glimmer of recognition for me began to coalesce around newly discovered memories — ill-advised road trips to Michigan, long summer days on the Lake Michigan shore, two-a-day football practices in the thick summer air, hanging out in Jungle Hall. My friend Gail played a key role here, bolstering my fading recollections with a reasonable incredulity — “How can you not remember her?” — and remarkable grace, supplying me with bits and pieces that pulled up memories from some pretty obscure corners of my brain.  And with each new recollection came the pleasure of rediscovering something I had long ago treasured, and then somehow misplaced.

That pleasure only magnified when I arrived at the country club for the reunion. There they were — my first serious crush, some teammates from the football team, the girl next door, and the pal that I roamed the streets with summer after summer after summer. Some I recognized instantly, but some I didn’t recognize until a particular mannerism or pattern of speech lifted the veil that three decades had drawn between us, leaving them there before me as clear-eyed and hopeful and young as they had been so many years before. I heard tales of triumph and tragedy, loss and gain, happiness and heartache, sickness and health. Some of these tales left me stunned, characterized as they were by uncommon courage and sacrifice. Some left me doubled over in laughter, as I had been so often growing up. And some of them left me with a profound sense of gratitude that I should know someone so loyal, so true, and so resilient.

More than 35 years have passed since our Point A — the time when we got our first jobs and slipped behind the wheel for the first time — and while we may well have felt our world expanding, I doubt that many of us could have foreseen what that actually would come to mean — how our lives would be shaped moment by moment, decision by decision. Of course it’s easy enough to look back three and a half decades later to see what went right and what went wrong, what we would do again and what we wish we had never done. But after all this time, does it really matter? Are we not, for better or for worse, precisely where we are meant to be?

Thanks in part to having reconnected with so many old friends, I’m more convinced than ever that I am, but maybe that’s just me. I am, as I’ve said before, one lucky man.

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Like most parents, we’ve made the rounds of talent shows and recitals and such. So Sunday night, as we made our way to a talent show presented by my son’s church youth group, I felt like I knew pretty much what to expect: note-for-note renditions of some recital pieces on the piano, a few beautiful young voices (practically) perfectly pitched, maybe a couple of feats of strength or dexterity — all punctuated by some skits that only a teenage mind could craft … or appreciate.

And, for the most part, I got exactly what I expected. Someone played the theme from “The Lord of the Rings” on the piano. One girl played and sang “Misty,” a very cool surprise. A brother and sister did an admirable job with a pop song. One young woman was even bold enough to try dancing en pointe on the carpeted stage, an attempt that, while earnest enough, probably would have been better on a more appropriate surface. So when my son, a pretty talented kid, sat down at the piano to play and sing “Walls,” a song by The Rocket Summer, I figured he’d fit right in.

But I was wrong.

I should have known better. There were certainly clues. First, while he’s always — and I mean always — singing or playing the piano or the guitar or listening to his iPod, he’s going even further this summer, thanks to his new band, Suite 325. A product of the Music Lab at the Jefferson Center in Roanoke, Suite 325 is a group of six hand-picked young musicians who are getting taught — no kidding — how to be a rock band. It’s a very cool idea, and one that I think is going to have a big influence on those lucky enough to be a part of  it. (Their first show is June 5th at Kirk Avenue Music Hall in Roanoke.)

The other thing I should have considered is that we had spent the evening before in the front row at a Warren Barfield show. You probably don’t know Warren Barfield, though he gets a bit of airplay from time to time. He’s a Christian pop/folk artist, and we’ve been listening to him in our house for a few years now. A lot of his recorded music is quintessential hook-laden pop, pretty easy on the ears, but a far cry from the cookie-cutter praise music you often hear from Christian artists. But Warren Barfield live was something else. Lots of funky rhythm, a heavy backbeat, and a kind of Dave Matthews improv feel to it. Simon and I were both pretty spellbound.

So here he was, less than 24 hours after that experience, sitting down at the piano, adjusting the mike, fiddling around. I knew something was up when he leaned forward, then paused for a moment before beginning, his hands resting on the piano keys. He pulled in a deep breath, then blew it out off-mike. I’ve seen my son perform in all kinds of ways — in martial arts, singing, dancing, even playing the lead in Macbeth — but I’d never seen him do that before, and wasn’t exactly sure what it meant.

But after the first couple of bars, I knew. He wasn’t there just to play the notes. He was there to perform.

I sat very still, stunned by what I was watching. I’m no stranger to his ability. I’ve seen it showcased before. But this wasn’t about ability. This was about passion. This was about watching him find another gear, one that required him to dig a little deeper and become more mindful of the music, and less mindful of the moment.

I’m not sure if he hit all the right notes. Frankly, my tin ear wouldn’t be able to discern if he was “pitchy” or not. And, unlike a Hollywood ending, the room did not erupt into thunderous applause that echoed off the walls for long moments after he stopped playing. (It did seem a bit more enthusiastic than just polite acknowledgment, but that could well be my bias.)

But I am sure that something else happened last night, something that maybe he’s not even aware of. I’m also sure that we’re both pretty excited to see what comes next.

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The house on Hazel MountainNot so many years ago, I found myself checking into a hotel in Lebanon, Virginia in the late evening. Lebanon is not exactly a rural place, but it’s close enough. I was there for a funeral; this time, for an aunt. The trip was just the latest in a pretty somber string of such events, as my father’s once large family slowly shrank, succumbing to time and age. My role, as it had been more often than I liked to think about, was pallbearer, a role I had played with such frequency that I was no longer taken aback by the surprising heft of a coffin, even when toted by six or eight strong men.

As I filled out the registration card and pushed back across the counter, the clerk — a kindly woman about my mother’s age — looked it over, then reached out and rested her age-speckled hand across my forearm.

“Are you one of Maudie’s?”

Here’s what you need to understand. First, I had never laid eyes on the night clerk in my life. Second, while I am indeed one of Maudie’s — Maudie being my grandmother — I have never lived in Lebanon. Never lived anywhere near Lebanon. And finally, Maudie — God rest her soul — passed away long before this encounter.

But this woman at the night desk  — this stranger — had noted my last name, sensed my muted grief , and instantly understood that I was connected to that place in some way, and that some small part of that connection had been severed. And she knew this in a way that surpassed even my own knowing.

“Yes,” I said. “Maudie was my grandmother. Aileen was my aunt.”

“Turrble,” she said, gliding over the embedded vowel. “So sad.” She extended my key — a solid brass affair on an oversized plastic fob — over the counter. “I’m so sorry for your loss.”

This memory has been on my mind a lot lately and, believe it or not, it’s all because of Facebook.

It’s not so much that I feel a part of a similar community online. After all, while social media can do many things and I’ve been pleasantly surprised by many of them, it can’t replicate that tangible and generational connection that I experienced that night.

But I’ve had the good fortune to reconnect with a couple dozen friends from high school over the past few months (Portage High School, Class of 1975, if you really want to know) and from time to time, this same group of friends will post pictures of themselves together at a restaurant or some other venue not far from where we all grew up. Sometimes there will be three or four of them, sometimes more. Sometimes it’s all men, sometimes all women, sometimes families.

What strikes me about these photos is that these people — some of them my oldest friends — are all there. In that very same, very specific place. A place where they have grown up. Gotten married. Had kids. Lost jobs. Gotten other jobs. Enjoyed their grandkids. They are rooted there in a way that I sometimes believe that I — who have had more addresses than I can count, some of them on the other side of the globe — may never experience.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not bemoaning my fate. I’ve seen much of the world, and more importantly, I am blessed to have a wife who is my home, my community, my connection — no matter where I am.

But some day, a man or a woman far younger than I am will walk into an establishment somewhere in northern Indiana and maybe — just maybe — someone will look them over and ask them — are you one of Rich and Gail’s? Or Doris and Chuck’s? Or Tom and Marlene’s?

And they will know where they belong.

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