Monday, March 30, 2009

L.E. and Nanny Brown

My cousin, Dave Zurek, sent me a ten-page memoir on our grandparents lives. He said that he wasn't that much of a writer but once he started writing he just couldn't stop.

So much of what he wrote, I didn't know. As I read it and thought about it, it stuck a chord and sparked rhyme. I wrote the first line and, like my cousin, once I started, I couldn't stop.


*******


Granddad Brown was a railroad man.
He raised his family with the strength of his hand.

Feeding coal and sweat to an angry boiler,
Powering people and freight, down the line in good order.
Earning burns and muscle, pushed shovel aside
From Fireman to Engineer, his career did stride.
Driving engine and cars to Monroe back
Repeating the cycle -- little time in the sack.

Granddad Brown was a family man.
He held his family in the palm of his hand.

He moved to the country to feed his brood,
Raising crops and livestock to give them food.
To survive the Depression and grow seven kids
He became a police, when railroads hit skids.

When my dad was born – child number four --
The doctors gave up – they could do no more.
He was sickly, so given no food. For why?
He was put in a closet and left to die.

But Grandma Brown, a railroad man’s wife
Ignored the doctors -- nurtured dad to life.
Dad lived on years, full of might,
And honored his parents who won that fight.

Granddad Brown was a big-hearted man.
Left kindness and gentleness wherever he ran.

“If more were like him, this world would be better,”
For all, and to all, he lived kind -- to the letter.
What life’s legacy could be greater than,
“That Mr. Brown -- he’s such a nice man.”

His days on this earth were seventy-five,
But his kindness and humor are still alive,
In children, grandchildren and even beyond --
Generations born after he was gone.
Descendants living not by strength of hand,
But with kindness and character -- from a railroad man.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Making a Contribution

What do you want to be when you grow up?

For most of my life, I’ve wrestled with that question. The part I’ve wrestled with most is making a contribution – doing socially important work.

When I was an orchestral musician, I struggled with the contribution I was making to society. I felt like a parasite – working for an organization that depended on philanthropic generosity for survival. Later, working in the defense industry, I felt uncomfortable being part of the “war machine.” When I moved to an investment management firm, I wondered about the unabashed avarice and greed of the money business. Finally, working for a shopping center developer, I pondered its contribution to fostering our materialistic culture of excess and consumption.

But what is socially responsible work anyway? Do only physicians, humanitarians and religious leaders qualify? I think not. There are many ways to do socially responsible work. In fact, almost anything that benefits humankind is, in some way, socially responsible.

The orchestra perpetuates the arts, benefits the local community and demonstrates a higher purpose for humans beyond daily existence. Defense work helps makes the world safe and protects the institutions of freedom and democracy. Investment management helps people save for retirement, education and other important family goals. Finally, building and managing shopping centers is part of merchandising that goes back to the roots of civilization. The marketplace is where people meet and interact. It is a forum for social exchange and intercourse. The marketplace is the nursery for civilization.

This is all true, but somehow still left me personally dissatisfied. Somehow my contributions just didn’t seem large enough. I read history, biographies and obituaries; I observed and marveled at my contemporaries’ accomplishments and suffered from, as someone coined the phrase, “identity envy.”

But now, at this late stage of my career, the wrestling is largely over. Here’s an example of some recent pondering.


Written: March 6, 2008


The funny thing is, I keep wondering why work, why improving things matters so much to people, when ultimately, life is finite. If we focus on that fact, there’s no reason or motivation to do anything except the minimum you need to do to survive and, perhaps, enjoy the pleasures and luxuries life has to offer. In this mode, you’d sleep, eat, and laugh your way through life. Just one big party.

So why don’t people live this way? Why do extremely wealthy folks like Warren Buffet and Bill Gates, support charitable causes with their time and money? Why do people care about others and the future? Perhaps there’s not a rational answer. Caring and giving are just built into our DNA – an altruistic gene, perhaps, to foster survival of the species.

As I waft into this pre-retirement stage of my life, I can see things that I think the me of ten years ago couldn’t see. I can see people taking organizational, job and personal issues way too seriously. I know that I did at that age.

Even knowing this, there’s no way to communicate to those a generation behind. If I were to tell the me of ten years ago, that it doesn’t matter, that every situation is not life or death, that there are more important things in the world than material success, the me of ten years ago just wouldn’t believe the me of now. There’s just some kind of invisible barrier.

Interestingly, people of my vintage, know what I’m talking about – life isn’t a rehearsal. People north of 55 are thinking about the next phase of life, of retiring, of putting their lives into some kind of perspective.


*******


In “repacking your bags,” Leider and Shapiro quote Rollo May from “The Courage to Create:”

“If you do not express your own original ideas, if you do not listen to your own being, you will have betrayed yourself. Also, you will have betrayed our community in failing to make your contribution to the whole.”

I believe this. More, I think I’m finally on the verge of internalizing it.


Written: October 16, 2008


What does it mean to contribute? Does it have to be some large, visible gesture? A perpetual legacy? Or can it be a footprint in mud – clear, deep, and distinct but temporary and erased by time and traffic.

My contribution is my work, my work is my meaning. I went into human resources to make things better for people. Individuals? Yes. Organizations? Yes, too. I do this by solving problems, helping the organization get out of its own way. After all, what is an organization but a collection of people?

Will my contribution last? Will it have meaning? Like invisible footprints before mine, mine too will disappear. But that doesn’t mean there’s no meaning in my step. Just as I don’t know who came before me, I’m invisible to a future traveler. But my footsteps, as the footsteps of that traveler before me, made the ground a little firmer, made the traction a little less slippery.

And that may be all that’s important. That may be enough. That may be meaning enough.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Voting for Obama

I'm working through a backlog of stuff I've written that has never seen the light of day. Here's a recent example.


Written: November 5, 2008


Yesterday when I voted, I experienced something I’m sure many people experienced when I marked by ballot for Obama, I unexpectedly welled up. It happened again when I went back to review my ballot before submitting it. I just had to pause and look at that mark and take it all in.

What was it that affected me so? Was it the prospect of the end of racial divisiveness? Was it the miracle of the peaceful transfer of power to someone who represents the sins of slavery? Was it the “end” of the Civil War? Was it the remarkable course of events over the last 40 years from the civil strife of 1968 when I was coming of age to just 40 years later? Was it the pride in my country and the prospect of a more civil and human international future. Who knows? If I had these emotions, I just can’t imagine the intensity of feeling for an African American citizen.

The words of the day are that this is an “historic event.” And it is. I hope Obama will be the transformational leader that I think he is. I hope Obama will set us on a new vector for a peaceful, productive and pristine planet over the next 100 years. I hope Obama and his family will be safe from harm. But no matter what happens, we can’t go back. The new Norman Rockwell faces in the crowd – African, Caucasian, Asian, Hispanic – tell us so. It’s a new day for America. It feels good to be part of it.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Writing my Way off the Window Ledge

Well, I’ve done the ostrich thing and buried my head in the sand for the last two weeks. During that time, I didn’t read a newspaper, an on-line news source or even listen to a radio news broadcast. Generally, it made me feel better – more balanced, more into my real life and less into worry and anxiety. And after looking at what the markets did, it looks like it was a good two weeks to be media comatose.

I’ve lived through recessions, bursting bubbles and the like throughout my working days and have generally been oblivious to them. But this one’s a Doozie! And it comes at a time when my income-producing runway is getting shorter. That and Marcia’s imminent retirement, makes me pay attention to this economic event. And as I pay attention, it’s hard to be complacent and serene as I watch our retirement savings melt away like an ice cube on a hot, July day. So, what do I do to cope? I talk -- well write -- myself off the window ledge.

*******


Thursday, October 9, 2008


Another day, another 7% drop in the stock market. It’s down 35% year to date, 40% off its high a year ago today and about where it was ten years ago. Wow. Interestingly, there’s no place to hide. It’s not like any other investment is doing better. Real estate sure isn’t looking good – especially when you factor in the risk. Only treasuries are a safe haven but it’s too late to cash out and move there. That just locks in losses.

How low will it go? When will it recover (if it recovers)? Nobody knows. This is an historic, global, economic event. And we’re all in this together. There’s nothing I can do, but realize that those who can influence change are working fulltime and doing all they can to fix the problem. And they have major skin in the game. The pilot of the aircraft has just as much stake in avoiding a crash as do the passengers. And I’m definitely a passenger on this economic flight.

Somehow, Marcia and I have survived other economic tsunamis in our lives, so with any luck, we’ll make it through this one as well. Meanwhile, Marcia and I are both employed, we have health insurance, we have our health and we have our wonderful family. We are blessed no matter what happens in the financial markets.

Finally, here’s a little tip from a New Dimension Radio program with Dr. Lisa Love. Her advice is to “surrender, align and contribute.” More letting go. Since I can’t control anything anyway, why not?


*******


Friday, October 17, 2008


Human beings are amazingly adaptable. We seem to be able to get used to almost anything and get used to it quickly. Gas was in the mid-$2 range before it shot up to north of $4 a gallon. Now, a few months later, when it’s near $3, we all feel that that’s wonderful. Never mind it’s probably up 20% from where it started.

The first time the stock market went down 700 points in a day, it felt horrid. I’m sure people felt that the end was near. But after it went up 700 points a day or two later, and then came back down the second time within a week, it just didn’t seem to be such a big deal. I personally, didn’t feel like jumping out a window (the second time, anyway). Instead, I changed my future retirement plan contributions to invest a stock fund, and started thinking about my eventual retirement plans in a new way – not as a number to hit, but as an age target (like age 99!). Whatever financial wherewithal I have when I get to retirement age will just have to do.

Besides the survival value, a lot of good can come out of being adaptable. By ceasing to strive and push against over-whelming force and trying to achieve things out of our control, we can return to living more fully in the present. We can experience each day and concentrate on what’s really important in life – meaningful work and rich relationships. We can concentrate on the big questions of meaning and contribution.

I suppose there’s a downside to being adaptable. That’s forgetting the pain. I used to think that pain-charged memories were long-lasting memories. But, now, I’m not so sure. Maybe that’s because at some visceral level, I feel secure. When you’re secure, you have no reason to hold on to painful memories and turn them into imagined present dangers. So, forgetting pain, adaptability amnesia, may not be a downside after-all, but another adaptability asset.

Like a tree in the wind, if we bend, we won’t break. Being adaptable has gotten the human race this far. If we’re fortunate, it will continue to serve us well in our future travels.


*******


Tuesday, October 28, 2008


High expectations, not just high but high and unachievable expectations create stress. It’s time to reframe and let go of unrealistic expectations. I’ve already established that I can’t control the market. If Hank Paulson and Ben Bernanke can’t, how could I!

So, in conclusion, surrender control. It will reduce stress eliminate striving and the ultimate results will be the same or better anyway. Letting go of the outcome will enable me to enjoy the ride and fully experience the mystery and adventure of each moment of each day.



*******


December 30, 2008


We’ll, I finally had to look at the carnage this year’s financial meltdown did to our retirement savings. Not pretty. We’re down about 32% for the year -- about what the Dow did.

Somehow, though, I’m not that distressed about it. Maybe because I had imagined that we had lost more. Maybe it’s because I’ve gotten used to the meltdown over the last three months. Maybe it’s because it’s only money and I’m feeling good about other aspects of my life -- my work, my crafts, my family and my plans. Maybe it’s because I have the prospect to recover over the next six to eight years. Maybe it’s because I’m gaining perspective on life and realize that it truly is only money.

What it does for me now, is take my need to work date out to my mid-60s. That’s not so bad as long as I don’t run out of my want to work, first. I’m certainly not ready to hang up my spurs at this point and, if I can keep it interesting, I won’t be ready any time soon.

I think all this wonderful perspective would be tested, though, if some of the more extreme scenarios like Dow 4,000 or Dow 400(!) materialize. That would be a whole new kettle of fish, not just for me, but for everyone!

Given the amount of money, effort and attention being paid to the economy, it’s hard to give these dire scenarios much credence. But the truth is that no one can predict the future – not even the low prognosticators. There’s no straight line projection of the present to the future. There’s no predicting unforeseen events (or else they wouldn’t be unforeseen, would they be?).

So, with any luck at all, some the government’s efforts will gain traction in the new year. I can’t imagine the early part to the year will be smooth sailing, but I hope things stabilize and improve as the year progresses.

So, here’s hoping for a recovery and a little (well) a lot better financial performance in 2009 and beyond. Meanwhile, all I can do is buckle my seatbelt (or adjust my savings allocation – which I’ve done) and go along for the ride.


*******


December 31, 2008


The last day of the year. At least from a financial market standpoint, it couldn’t have ended sooner. It turns out that we’ve gone through second or third worst market decline in 100 years. You have to go back to 1907 or 1931 to experience this level of carnage. The Dow is down ~38%, about the same it was down for the combined three-year slide of 2000, 2001 and 2002. That felt pretty bad, but this felt worse, first, because I was younger and on the upper vector of my career path – I had time to recover – and second, because it happened over three years not one.

All in all, though, it could have been worse. I’m with an employer I respect, the family is healthy, and I’m enjoying life. I’m looking forward to an enjoyable and productive 2009. With any luck, the financial markets are too.


*******


Sunday, February 22, 2009


It hard to watch your savings go down the drain and do nothing about it. But everything I read tells me that this is the right thing to do. The economy and, the human sentiment that drives it, are cyclical. I know this and feel it when it’s at the top. As Julius Westheimer used to say, “Trees don’t grow the sky.” It’s hard to remember that things are cyclical, though, when you’re in a hole. It’s hard to see any direction but down. Intellectually, I know that the economic cycle is just as much alive in bust times as it is in boom times, but on an emotional-level, it’s harder to believe.

So, how do I cope for what may be years before this turns around? First, stop obsessing on daily events and market movements. There’s no one event that will make things turn for the better and stay in a positive direction, so stop pretending as if there is one and looking for it. It may be five or more years before the economy and financial markets right themselves. Instead of watching the market and listening to the TV pundits every day, checking investments no more than once per quarter and no less than once per year is enough.

So, my advice to me is to avoid the daily collective malaise and hysteria (mostly reflected on TV and radio news) and have gratitude for all of blessings of my life – interesting work, wonderful family, good friends, creative outlets and a good life. The future will take care of itself.
Who could ask for more!


*******


Well, the world-wide financial carnage has continued so far this year. Even with the four-day upturn last week, the Dow is still down another 18% this year. But my little media holiday did help me keep things in perspective. The price, though, was feeling disconnected and uniformed.

In trying to discover the right balance between denial and hysteria, I think it will be along the lines of first, avoiding the breathless and sensational media reports during the work week. Their purpose is more to entertain and sell sponsors’ goods than to inform. But I don’t know whether that will be enough. It felt good to have a news holiday for almost two weeks. Maybe the right balance is to check into a couple of times a month. With all the sources of information we have today, it doesn’t take long to come back up to speed. I’ll continue the experiment and see what feels right.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Rhymes for Tough Times

When bored or distraught, I write poems. Not poetry, just poems -- in the sense that there’s a rhyme in there somewhere. Interestingly, with the exception of Ogden Nash’s or Edgar Alan Poe’s works, I don’t like reading poetry. In fact I pretty much despise it.

So why do I write this stuff? Who knows. But somehow, at stressful times poems come fast -- almost writing themselves. And I feel better when they’re done.

Here are some examples.

The year I was turning 50, the company I was working for was failing fast. Not a good combination – hitting the big 5-0 with a job in jeopardy.


July 10, 2000

…but if my job goes away, could I find something new? No doubt, I could. I’ve gained a lot valuable experience over the last 17 or so years in my field and have a professional network that could help.

So...relax and let go...
Time will tell, the story will unfold.
Fretting about the future is illusory control.
No matter what happens,
No matter what my goal
If I’m really lucky, I’ll get to grow old.

*******


Next a time of boredom, but as an exception to the rule, a time a peace.

April 19, 2005


Here I sit “rotting away” in the New Orleans airport. I've been here since a little after 1:00 PM, waiting for a 7:45 PM flight.


Waiting in New Orleans

Unscheduled, unstructured, unlimited time.
No worries, no pressures, no loose fears that I’m
Supposed to be working, achieving, constructive,
Be driven, be busy, and always productive.

A small gift of time that is saved as it’s spent
Doing nothing, no nothing, that helps pay the rent.
For waiting is living and breathing is being,
Remembering joys of just looking and seeing.

So next time you lose time and miss a connection,
It’s not a disaster don’t throw a conniption.
Consider the lost time a gift and a gain,
Of hours of life that will not be the same.

A chance to remember just who that you are.
A chance to be warmed by a near yellow star.
Time spent in peace just being not doing,
Luxurious time spent merely pursuing,

The person and not the role that you play.
Remembering, centering, living the day.
And blessing the curse of a lost time jar,
For reintroduction to who you are.

Cell Phones

Plastered to the head,
Plugged into the ear,
Tethered to the belt,
When first was it we felt?

That it’s fine to be somewhere
We really aren’t at all.
To have a conversation
From the throne within a stall.

To share our half discussions
With the others on the bus
To make all others listen to
The importance that is us?

To look at someone in the eye,
While talking to another.
To talk out loud, yes very loud
With someone’s unseen brother?

Not long ago this type of thing
Would seem a tad bit loony.
Wide berth we’d give to anyone
Who seemed to be so gooney.

Alas, is past, the day of old
When humans were connected.
When mind and body, voice and soul
Were right where we expected.

But worse will be, is yet to come
Soon as we all can stand it.
Before we know the small cell phone
Is surgically implanted.

*******


Continuing the exception theme, here are two poems inspired by a rare absence of strife. I was one week out a stressful job of working for a company being sold and liquidated and two weeks away from beginning a new position.


April 25, 2006


Poem 1

Walking in the woods today,
I paused and let cares melt away.
I sat and noticed a cool breeze blow,
With no particular place to go.

It’s something I’ve missed for 45 years
Preoccupied with thoughts and fears
Focused on what could go wrong
Instead of singing life’s true song.

A song of joy and happiness,
A song sung softly and often missed.
But if you listen it’s always there,
Carried on a puff of air.

Poem 2

Pushing prodding making things happen,
Scheduling, controlling, keeping things snappin’,
It’s all become such a habit to me
And it’s cost me my serenity.

So take your hand off the steering wheel,
Go along for the ride and accept what is real.
Relax, and realize there’s more than one way,
To get where you’re going at the end of the day.

And get there, you will, not especially direct.
But the there may not be the there that you expect.
And you’ll get to a place far better by far,
By letting life drive as you ride in the car.


*******


Little did I know how much I’d be riding in a car as I began the next two years with a three to four hour daily commute. Little did I know how short my period of tranquility was to be.


November 17, 2006


When your career’s in a rut
Life’s a pain in the butt
Work’s too time-consuming
To spend bored or fuming

You think you know the score
There’s more less there than more
But you really are mistaken
Every day’s a road not taken

Within each pause, a twist
A turn unwatched is missed
No one knows the future state
So, adventure just appreciate

Nothing lasts forever more
No one cares about the score
Live each day with anticipation
With interest and participation

Before you know you are engaged
In the right place for this your page
In the book of life that’s being written
That, looking back, you will be smitten

By how much sense it did make
Somehow the right turns you did take
It comes together and serves a purpose
Even though your life’s a circus.

So keep faith, hope and the dream alive
Celebrate blessings that’s what I’ve
Decided to do to renew the excitement
And live each day with joy and delightment.


*******


I felt better, temporarily.


May 12, 2007


I know the score,
I know the game.
Now I can breathe,
And be entertained.

By the foibles, frivolities
And pseudo importance
The urgency sickness,
The rude impertinence.

By senior managers
Without exception.
Who live in a world
Without deception.

Of anyone else
But their own selves, for certain.
Not realizing others
Can see through the curtain.

It’s just not real life
But just playing a game.
So, don’t panic, just play
And you’ll arrive fully sane.

To your aim
Destination and ultimate goal.
To do good for others,
To live with soul.


*******



As you can see, I usually end up hopeful and optimistic. But it doesn’t always last.


July 18, 2007


You’ve done all you can
It’s out of your hand
The answer is part of some
Much larger plan.

So, stop the neurosis
Avoid the psychosis
Just live every moment
That here and now is.


*******


But I couldn’t help myself and turned optimistic once more.


July 28, 2007


Celebrate life, don’t give into strife.
Remember each day as adventure.

Be alert for the clue, you’ll know what to do.
To live life as gift not indenture.


*******


I ultimately served my time of career incarceration and escaped to a better world. But I still had a few slow days.

August 4, 2008

No more pressing
No more striving
Let go of control
Let go of conniving

Take things as they come
Be peaceful, be happy

And what comes is enough
It’s perfectly fine
So savor each day
Like a well-vintaged wine

Be grateful and happy
For the gift of each day
Leave love, joy and happiness
Along all the way

At the end of it all
It’s what’s life is for
Leaving peace, joy and happiness
As you walk thorough each door.

September 16, 2008

Not every day’s a break-through day
Think, write, talk and explore -- a little each day
And handle the challenges that come your way
And break-through or not, you earn your pay

So when slow times come, don’t boil and stew
Don’t flail in desperation for anything to do
Instead step back, take a long-term view
To contribution that’s true and authentically you.

*******

Since that time there have been no poems trying to get out. Things must be going well.

Monday, March 2, 2009

Worry About Worrying

Dennis reminded me last night that when Dad was paying Grandma Brown’s bills for her, she would ask, “Should I worry, Warren?” Dad’s answer was always, “No, don’t worry.” But he was a second generation worrier. One of his favorite expressions when I told him of a problem I was dealing with (and had resolved, or I wouldn’t have told him about it) was “I was worried about that.”

I’m a third generation worrier. Twenty years ago, a work colleague of mine said, “You’re a worrier, aren’t you.” I can’t remember what made him say that, but, guilty, as accused. I’ve worried my way through my career. I’ve worried my way through job changes. I’ve worried my daughters through college. I’ve worried my way through life!

Sometimes worry has been helpful. It’s made me take action to avoid unpleasant consequences. But most the time worry has been inconsequential – there was nothing I could do to change the outcome. Now is one of those times.

My main worry (but being a pedigreed worrier, not my only worry) is the financial meltdown and what it’s doing to my prospect of retiring one day. Obviously, the entire world is in the same boat with everyone either being affected by the economy or knowing someone close who is. But what can I do? Nothing constructive. I’m along for the ride.

There is one thing I can do about this particular worry, though – unplug from the media that’s beating it to death.

I’ve unplugged a couple times in my life. When I was in college, not that I was plugged into the world, but I decide to literally unplug. I pulled the wire from the antenna on my car radio – my only connection with the world -- so that even if, by habit, I turned my radio on, I only got static. I found that being unconnected gave me a fresher perspective on life. I remember putting together little data fragments and predicting, the unthinkable, that Nixon would go to China way before it happened.

Later, about twenty years ago, I again unplugged from newspapers, TV and radio. I can’t remember why I did this, but as Mark Twain said, something important doesn’t necessarily happen every day. And when something important happened, I’d hear about it from others.

So it’s time to unplug again. Now days, it’s a little harder to unplug with access to on-line media. But to get our attention, media has to be ever more sensational. It screams to us that the sky is falling.

Is the sky falling? Has the economic cycle been repealed? Is this time different and we won’t have an up-turn at some point. Nobody knows.

So, as a third (at least) generation pedigreed worrier, what can I do? I can unplug – completely. I’ve tried the partial approach, staying away from financial news, but that’s proved impossible. Each media source wants to tell you that the markets are as low as they were in 1492 or the like. So, it’s time to unplug and just live my life. I may be a worrier, but I can find worries without all the help I’m getting from the media, thank you.

Finally, I’ve often thought that we as baby boomers have not had a hard life. Our grandparent’s generation who lived through the great depression and two world wars had it bad. We’ve just been whiners. For perspective, here’s something I wrote about twelve years ago, triggered by a video.


Written: August 23, 1997



I just finished watching the SHRM Portfolio VP Series video of Dr. John G. Stoessinger, the keynote speaker at SHRM’s 49th Annual Conference. I didn’t expect it to, but it struck something in me.

The last part of his speech was his life story. As a child, he fled Austria, then Poland, through Russia to China. He escaped Hitler only to confront Japanese domination and atrocities. After the war, through contact with an American Lieutenant whose shoes he was shining, he was encouraged to apply to Grinnel. He did and received a full scholarship.

Dr. Stoessinger could appreciate freedom. He could appreciate this country and the opportunities we have here -- things we take completely for granted. I got a small glimpse of this appreciation when I was in the orchestra and touring East Germany -- before the Berlin Wall came down.
For an encore, Sergiu Commissiona, our conductor and a Jewish refugee from Communist Romania, chose a passage from Copland’s Appalachian Spring. The passage was a setting of a Shaker Hymn. I don’t know if the audience appreciated the message of the selection, since the music and not the lyrics were captured Copland’s composition. I know it made our East German guide upset and angry every time we performed it. You see, the lyrics say “It’s a gift to be simple, it’s a gift to be free...”

What a powerful message. And what meaning it took on behind the barbed wire walls of Communist East Germany. A place where police toted machine guns; where Russian troops patrolled the streets; where bombed-out churches remained in piles of rubble and machine gun spray was visible on buildings 35 years after the war; where people traveled to Berlin to sit in lawn chairs and stare longingly at the West across the Wall 100 yards away (about as close as they could get without risking their lives to the watchful armed guards); where people risked their lives trying to escape by hiding in the engine compartments of trucks and busses; where people lost their lives trying to escape over the Wall.

It was also a place where, for a brief time, we lost our freedom. The East Germans took our passports and through a variety of subtle and not so subtle psychological tactics made us feel and understand what it was like not to be free.

Like Dr. Stoessinger when he arrived here for the first time, I felt like kissing the ground when I returned to the US. We take so much for granted in the things we choose to complain about; in the things that fill our newspapers and our daily lives. We just don’t get what a profound gift freedom is, the opportunities we have here and how fortunate we are to live in these times of peace and growing freedom.

It’s a gift to be simple and a gift to be free
And astonishingly amazing how unthankful we can be.
But when someone like John helps us see the light,
Clearly but briefly we see what’s right.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Some Distant Relatives

Last week I read that a track of recently discovered fossilized footprints proves that our relative, Homo erectus, walked up-right with a modern human-like gait more than 1.5 million years ago. It’s mind-boggling to think how long we and our relatives have been around compared to the brief time of recorded history. I had a similar thought when I read about a different fossilized discovery last year a little closer to home.

Written: April 6, 2008


Friday, I read about a recent finding of human coprolite found in an Oregon cave. It takes human occupation of the Americas back a thousand years prior to this discovery – to 14,300 years ago -- around 12,000 BC.

It’s an amazing thing to think about from several perspectives. First, it’s mind boggling to think that prior to 12,000 BC, nobody was home in the western hemisphere. The Americas were just a big nature preserve. Second, it’s interesting to notice that we know when people came here, because someone took a crap in a cave. Even more interesting is that someone found it and recognized it for what it was. Finally, it’s amazing that we have the science today to be able to tell by sampling of petrified feces where the donor came from (through DNA) and what he had been eating.

Even more amazing than this though, is to contemplate the whole universe. The manager of the Space Telescope Institute spoke at Friday’s practicum. When the James Webb telescope goes up in 2013, we’ll be able to see back 15 billion years to the beginning of the universe. We’ll be able to detect other solar systems with habitable planets. And we’ll find out things that we didn’t know we didn’t know. Amazing stuff.

Given the immensity of time and the universe, it makes humans seem small and infantile. It’s amazing that we’re here and amazing in the short time we’ve been around what we’ve been able to learn. It’s also amazing how stuck we are in the mundane, in pettiness, in violence and in wars. If we as a species could only realize our insignificance and vulnerability perhaps we could pull together and have a chance to perpetuate the best things about our existence before the sun burns out. I doubt we’ll make it that long.