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Archive for the ‘The American life’ Category

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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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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500,000,000 can't be wrong, can they?A couple of very different stories about Facebook hit the news cycle at about the same time last week, and they both speak to the site’s place in our lives — but in very different ways.

The first story is a pretty straightforward piece of evidence. Facebook has doubled in size in just the last year, and has now surpassed 500 million users, amassing 100 million new users just since February. Mark Zuckerberg, the face behind Facebook, has promised that they will reach 1 billion, and at this rate that seems certain.

But here’s the other curious piece of news. According to the American Customer Satisfaction Index, conducted by the University of Michigan’s business school, a LOT of those 500 million people aren’t very satisfied. The site placed in the bottom five percent of private sector companies for customer satisfaction.

Put those two stories together for a minute, and let them roll around in your head. What’s that tell you? That Facebook better get its act together or they’ll tumble? Doubtful.

What it says to me is that Facebook has reached some pretty rare heights. They have built a product that is so ubiquitous that they don’t have to care if people are satisfied with it. Sure, they will no doubt continue to make tweaks to “refine” the Facebook experience. But in the end, it’s like we used to say about Ma Bell before the breakup.

They’re the phone company. They don’t care. They don’t have to.

Other service providers have this same status. Take cable television, for example. My guess is that most of you reading this post pay a pretty penny every month for access to hours and hours of programming you don’t watch and wouldn’t be interested in anyway. Bad service? Oh, well. Spotty signal? Bummer. We kicked the cable habit (as well as the TV habit pretty much) about eight years ago and now the thought of actually paying $30, $50, or even $70 dollars a month (how high do YOU go?) to watch TV seems like absolute folly. Yet for most, it’s just not something they would ever consider doing without. Increasingly, it’s the same with web access. We simply feel like we have to have it, and we’ll pony up whatever we need to keep it.

For my part, I’m not sure whether I need Facebook or not. Certainly this blog would have far fewer readers without it. And I wouldn’t have had the pleasure of catching up with some old friends at a high school reunion a few weeks back if I wasn’t a Facebook user. So there are some definite advantages for me. But increasingly, there are times when I log on and find myself wondering exactly what I’m looking for. Or whether or not it’s the best way for me to be spending my time at that moment.

In the end, I tend to judge technology’s worth to me by its utility, not how engaging or amusing it is. Sometimes, as in the case of my iPod Touch, I am surprised to discover just how quickly a particular technology proves valuable to me, often in ways I might not have expected. But other times — and this is where I am with Facebook — the scales begin to imperceptibly tilt in the opposite direction.

I’m not sure I’ll ever pull the plug on Facebook as I did with cable TV, but I’m not sure I could rule out such a possibility either. In the meantime, you can find me there at www.facebook.com/oneluckyman. Look me up, and tell me why I should remain among the 499,999,999 (and growing) people who “like” it.

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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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Vodpod videos no longer available.

more about “One Lucky Man and a bear.“, posted with vodpod

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I don’t know about you, but it’s hard for me to imagine the scale of the catastrophe unfolding in the Gulf of Mexico. My friend sent me this link, which is certainly helpful in visualizing the size of the spill. (Not for the faint of heart.) But even that graphic representation doesn’t do justice to what’s actually going on. After all, tens of thousands of gallons of oil are continuing to pour forth, befouling the water, the shore, the wildlife, and the image of the mere mortals who are futilely trying to staunch the flow.

Forgive me, but at times those efforts — at least as they have been characterized by the media — have seemed like profoundly simplistic tactics, especially when compared to the sophistication of the techniques used to extract the oil.

They’ve tried lowering a big — and then a small – dome over it. The top hat? Please. Then filling it with drilling mud and — though they didn’t get that far — old golf balls and tires. Finally,  they thought maybe they could just run a hose down there and suck that nasty oil right up to a waiting ship. When the word got out a few days ago that the feds and BP were including Hollywood director James Cameron in a group brainstorming possible solutions, it was almost enough to make me laugh out loud. Almost. (Cameron has since criticized the “morons” who wouldn’t hear him out.)

Whether or not James Cameron is smarter than everyone else, what’s obvious by now, and what is not the least bit laughable, is that there is not a single soul who understands what the best next step should be. There is not a single soul who envisioned this calamitous failure of man’s ingenuity.

And why should they have imagined it? After all, consider for a moment what a feat this kind of thing is. Most of us know that the wellhead is a mile beneath the surface of the ocean, but the oil bed itself is far, far deeper. BP was authorized to drill 18,000 feet below the seabed, but some reports suggests that they, in fact, drilled much deeper. Some say 22,000 feet. Think on that. That’s more than four miles beneath the surface of the earth. One commentator on NPR described it — in terms of the sheer bravado of its engineering — as no less remarkable than landing a man on the moon.

That we can locate oil at that depth is amazing enough. That we can drill down into it from a semi-submersible oil rig some 50 miles offshore and bring it forth to be commodified is, certainly by human measures, nothing short of a miracle. It’s certainly clear that BP felt that was the case. We know now that just before the rig exploded, a group of executives from the beleaguered firm were on board to celebrate the Deepwater Horizon’s safety record and its pending conversion from an exploration rig to a oil-producing rig. We all know what happened next.

Back in high school, my English teacher taught me about hubris with illustrations from classical literature. Achilles. Icarus. Macbeth. And for many years, I carried those examples around with me, imagining them to be pertinent only in the rarefied context of literary analysis. What I know now, of course, is that history is littered with examples of man’s folly, of his overbearing pride, and of his contempt for what the consequences of that pride may be.

According to this MSNBC story, BP’s chief executive office Tony Hayward told The Financial Times of London that it was “an entirely fair criticism” to say the company had not been fully prepared for a deepwater oil leak, going on to call the disaster a “low-probability, high-impact” accident.

Low probability. Right.

Thanks, Icarus. I feel so much better now.

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Virginia’s powerhouse NPR affiliate, WVTF, recently aired a version of one of my blog posts that I recorded for them. Have a listen, and let me know what you think.  You can find it here.

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