Inspiration Is Where You Find It

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It may be a time of unusually depressing news, or I may just be getting older, but there’s plenty to be down about these days. Examples: the wave of humanity from Syria meeting human indifference in Europe and North America; the ignorance and bigotry posing as ‘religious freedom’ in Kentucky and elsewhere; the clown-show going by the name of the campaign for the Republican nomination for the presidency.

That said, three things have given me inspiration and hope today and I do so want to share them.

The first might seem rather random but life is that way sometimes. Later today, at Memorial Stadium in Berkeley, Grambling State University’s football team will play the Golden Bears of the University of California. No, that’s not it; this isn’t a sports story. Besides football, Grambling, an historically-black institution of higher education, is known for it’s high-octane, high-energy, up-to-date and hip marching band, called “The Best Band in the Land.” Yesterday, that band practiced at Richmond’s John F. Kennedy High School, to the delight and, yes, inspiration of the benighted school’s students.

Now, Kennedy is known as a tough school. It’s big and it’s urban. There have been violent incidents. Its students don’t tend to be among the state’s most accomplished. But yesterday, they got to see a high-performing unit of college kids who looked a lot like the high school kids and, by all reports, the results were glorious.

The message they brought to Kennedy, along with their music, was summed up by band member Jamie Taylor, who is from Oakland,  “You have the potential to do anything that you put your mind to,” he said . “I didn’t think that I would be able to do it, balancing classes and everything, but I’ve done it and I’m just so happy and I’m proud of myself, as well as my peers.”

Here’s hoping that message was absorbed by the Kennedy crowd.

The next source of inspiration came over the radio, on the Canadian Broadcasting Company’s program Day 6. The program host, Brent Bambury, interviewed two Canadians who, a generation ago, were refugees from Vietnam, or boat-people as they were called back then. These people know well the feelings of today’s Syrians hoping for some measure of charity, if not hospitality from Europeans, from whom they’re hoping for refuge. Some years ago, they had been in the precise position, herded into camps, made to wait for sponsorship from some unknown someone in a position to help.

They knew the struggle. You could hear that in their voices. But they also knew the relief when, in their cases, good-hearted Canadians took them in. And the result? They have become hard-working members of their communities, good citizens and credits to their nation. Turns out their gratefulness extends pretty deep. They’re organizing other Vietnamese-Canadians, themselves mostly former refugees, to help today’s Syrian refugees by extending the promise they found, in Canada, by sponsoring as many of them as they can.

Canada had made all the difference in their lives, they reckoned in the interview, so they had an absolute obligation to humanity that necessitated their engagement in this latest human crisis. I listened to Bambury’s program in complete awe and gratitude.

Finally, with all the cheap drama about and purposefully wrong-headed reaction to Kentucky clerk Kim Davis and her denial of civil rights to gay and lesbian couples, I was completely delighted to read today the front page of my local newspaper, the San Francisco Chronicle.

You see, routinely, every single day, day in and day out, without much, if any, particular difficulty, couples come into San Francisco’s gorgeous and historic City Hall to get marriage licenses and get married. The city clerk dispatches the job efficiently, without prejudice or judgment. Couples leave, tearfully, happily and then go to parties or lunch, then on about with their lives, as they themselves see fit, according to their own conceptions of divine direction, or whatever inspires them.

Seen any man-woman marriages crumble as a result? Are the end-times just around the corner as a consequence? Not that I’ve seen, and I’m around City Hall at least once a week. (But, you know, I’ll be keeping my eyes open.) Know what I do see? Couples in love. Supportive families and friends taking pictures and, every so often, crying too.

If these particular stories don’t give you inspiration, then go find some of your own. I bet you’ll find some if you’ll only look.

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Oh, Canada

The Glacier at Lake Louise
The Glacier at Lake Louise

Earlier this month, I had the opportunity to revisit the beautiful Canadian Rockies. They were just as I remember them from a visit I took about 25 years ago, with my then-fiancee. (Good story for another time, she and I are now spouses.)

The scenery was, of course, breathtaking. One morning, we rose at 5:00 and boarded canoes to witness the sun rising on the glacier at Lake Louise. It was magical, a spiritual moment of the type you (or, rather, I) can only find in nature.

The Banff National Park has many such places and moments in store for visitors, of whom there are many, from many different lands. Considering the number of visitors we saw, the openness and cleanliness of the park is nothing short of a miracle. Or it would be back home in the United States. In Canada, people take community responsibility seriously. There is scarcely any litter to speak of. People pick it up.  There is little, if any, graffiti on public structures. Canadians who live within the borders of the park take just pride in their place and the condition in which visitors find it.

Can you, my fellow Americans, even imagine?

Of course, this civic pride isn’t just in the national parks. Canadian cities are bright and open, clean and vibrant. There is a public spirit I don’t often find at home.

And there’s more. Canadians are polite and helpful. They act like grownups. They wait in line and take their turns. They ask if they can help. They don’t run red lights and wait for pedestrians. They build community centers and athletic facilities. Canada offers a public health system that guarantees healthcare for all, just by virtue of being there. And, then, there’s the issue of guns.

At dinner one night, our waitperson asked where we were from. When I said San Francisco, he said, “You must feel naked without your gun, eh?” When I asked him what he meant (Because, God knows, I don’t often pack heat.), he said that he assumed all Americans carry guns around. I tried to correct the impression but I suspect he’d seen too much TV and was having none of it.

Imagine living in a clean, polite, safe country like that.

There is much, I believe, about Canada to admire. And every single time I’ve visited, I’m reminded of that.

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One Way or Another, Show ‘Em

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Years ago, 31 years ago to be exact, I wormed my way into the national bobsled training camp and team selection at the U.S. Olympic training center in beautiful Lake Placid, New York. Long story; maybe another time.

Every day after a light breakfast and meetings at the training facility, we’d run our assess off and end up at Lake Placid’s Olympic Stadium, where the opening and closing ceremonies were held for the 1980 Winter Olympics, which were, as you might remember, best known for the U.S. Hockey Team’s ‘Miracle On Ice’ victory against the highly-favored team from the USSR (or CCCP, if you’re reading their jerseys). Once at the stadium, we’d do calisthenics, sprinting, lifting and training at push-starts.

One morning, we were in the midst of stretching when a tour bus rolled by slowly, dozens of faces pressed to the windows.

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With that, one of the seasoned bobsled veterans, who, I came to realize, are a uniquely insane bunch, yelled “Show ’em you’re nuts!” Or, it might have been “Show ’em your nuts!” (Pronunciation, you’ll note, are pretty much the same.)

In either event, all of us guys flopped onto our backs and assumed roughly the following position.

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Now, it was fall in the Adirondacks, but we were all wearing t-shirts and shorts, not sweatpants. Consequently, those visitors to beautiful Lake Placid, New York and its historic stadium were treated to a mighty big eyeful of sweaty man crotch.

And still, these many years later, I’m uncertain whether I was being commanded by a respected team elder to demonstrate to these visitors my insanity or my lack of modesty. Such is the power of the apostrophe, my dear readers.

This, You’ve Got to Know

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Sadly, I never took a single course from the late William Ker (Sandy) Muir but (not sadly) he absolutely changed my life and how I live it.

Muir was a professor of political science at the University of California, Berkeley, when I was an undergraduate. Our paths crossed many times in my several years at Cal; he often met with incoming students when I worked new student orientations and I was mesmerized by him. He walked in on metal crutches, slowly, carefully. He’d had polio, I was told. (Later in life, I understood he used a wheelchair to navigate the hilly Berkeley campus and its labyrinthine halls.) He stood ramrod straight at the lectern, weaving engrossing stories in stylish but spare prose.

He had a sincerely warm manner, blazing smile and inviting personality. New Cal students loved him and I became a fan.

But, you know, I was busy at other matters and never took his classes.

It wasn’t until years later, as a grad student studying negotiation, I came across Police: Streetcorner Politicians, his amazing book that blew my mind. In it, Muir talked about the limitations of coercive power (i.e., force) and how it, paradoxically, puts those who employ violence on behalf of the state at a distinct power disadvantage.

That book got me thinking critically, for the first time, about the limits violence puts on those who employ it, rather than those upon whom it is employed. Many times, Muir shows, by outlining the 4 paradoxes of force (the Paradox of Dispossession, the Paradox of Detachment, the Paradox of Face and the Paradox of Irrationality), that those with the most power can be put at a distinct disadvantage. Furthermore, those attempting to coerce others into specific actions must use wisdom in addition to threats of violence and physical strength (or weapons), or they will be, at best, ineffective, or, at worst, dominated or dead.

This book completely changed my conception, not only of negotiation strategy, which had been the point of reading it, but also of interpersonal relations. Thanks to Sandy Muir’s brilliant study of the Oakland Police Department, I think very seldom of coercion as a negotiation (or personal) approach and am almost impossible to coerce in negotiations.

(How I wish Muir had been consulted by Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz, et al., before they unleashed all holy hell on Iraq – but that’s another story.)

Sadly, Sandy Muir passed away last week; one of his great professional achievements is duly noted and my personal appreciation for him hereby expressed.

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Witness to a Slow Death

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Just this past Sunday, I drove through California’s Central Valley, likely as not the place that produces much of the food you eat. It’s a drive I’ve made often, so I recognize things are not good.

The trees, that in their good times produce nuts and stone fruit in verdant abundance, look haggard and dark. Fields that would typically be full of lush green feed crops are brown and bare, giving birth not to the fuel of countless area ranches but only to dust devils at the slightest whoosh from a passing car or truck. Livestock – cattle and sheep around these parts, mostly – look gaunt and listless.

It reminded me of a summertime drive I took across Nebraska during the late 1980s, when that state was in the midst of its own crushing drought. The corn, which in good years would have been well over my head in height, was no more than waist-high. The ears were shriveled and dusty, leaves brown. I remember thinking about the farmers, who depended on this crop for their livelihoods, and being overwhelmed with the acres of sadness my drive-by view represented.

What keeps cities and towns like California’s Manteca and Oakdale and Escalon alive is agriculture. What keeps agriculture alive is water. And, after years of unprecedented drought, water is in very short supply. Coming on the heels of an historic economic downturn, as it does, this drought hits the people of the valley especially hard.

The effect on people is plain to see by the boarded up stores on Main Streets throughout the valley, the down-at-the-heels stores that do remain in the contracting downtowns that used to bustle on weekend afternoons, the going-out-of-business sales and bone-tired idle men, who’ve now given up even looking for work.

Like the drought-ridden crops, they and the life they represent, are slowly but visibly dying.

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Call Me Deacon Blues

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“I cried when I wrote this song,

Sue me if I play too long.”

 

“Hey dad, you want a ride?” came the deep drawl from the beefy campus security guy in the golf cart next to me.

I’d unloaded a beyond-full rental car and was walking back in the sweltering heat from the special parking lot the college had set aside that day, not too far away from the dorms, especially for parents of freshmen. It had already been a hard day, made much better, almost tolerable, by the unrelenting helpfulness and politeness of everyone on the Wake Forest campus.

In the end, I thanked the officer but declined. I needed the few minutes alone to compose myself before going into Ella’s teeny dorm room and the delicate dance of four parents and two new roommates. He zoomed on in his undersized buggy, in search of the next distraught, barely-holding-it-together dad to help, I assumed.

As I entered the building, frigidly cold in comparison to the swampy conditions outside, I was met by dozens of impossibly pretty girls showing off their end-of-summer tans with inappropriately short shorts and brightly colored diaphanous tops, a seemingly ubiquitous uniform of the incoming freshman class. Our Ella, I thought, wouldn’t dream of following such a well-worn path.

The day of unpacking, and figuring out what would go where in the room, and getting registered, and buying stuff and all that, passed, for the most part, without tears or bloodshed, a more-than-minor miracle. Eventually, we went to dinner, which was, predictably, rough. We all had nothing, which is to say too much, to say out loud.

 

“So useless to ask me why,

Throw a kiss and say goodbye.”

 

This kid, who I grew accustomed to being with every day at dinner, to having as my morning commute partner, to watching at swim meets and nights at the theater, would now be just an occasional and awkward dinner companion? At that moment, it was simply too much to bear. We dropped her off at her dorm and went back to a mostly sleepless night at a hotel.

The next day, we joined for lunch after separate, that is students separate from parents, orientation sessions. And I was heartened when I saw that familiar smile across the quad, that expression I’ve seen a million times, that bounce to her hair when she moves quickly.

“Why not UC Davis, a 90-minute train ride away, or UCSB, half a day’s drive?” I’d once wanted to ask her but, thank God, didn’t.

What was the absolute worst moment of dropping our daughter off at college? Was it that last wave, the look over her shoulder as we left, so much like I remember from her first day in kindergarten, so many years ago? Was it flying to San Francisco without her? Was it seeing her little brother’s face for the first time when we got back home?

 

“There when I used to stand,

It seems like only yesterday.”

 

There were as many ‘worst’ moments as ‘best’ ones, which is to say many.

Look, this story isn’t a tragedy. She’ll always be our daughter. She’ll always be part of the family. We’ll love her forever. We’re completely proud of her and her achievement, not to mention the kind of person she’s become – her character, her integrity, her humanity and kindness. She’s moving forward.

But our family has changed: she won’t be around; we won’t have as many impromptu conversations about stupid things every night. It just doesn’t get to be the same.

 

 

“I’ll learn to work the saxophone,

I’ll play just what I feel.

Drink Scotch whiskey all night long,

And die behind the wheel.

They got a name for the winners in the world,

I want a name when I lose.

They call Alabama the Crimson Tide,

Call me Deacon Blues.”

 

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– all lyrics from Deacon Blues, Walter Carl Becker, Donald Jay Fagen (1977)

Not Passing

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The fairly nondescript tan sedan was stuck in bad Sunday morning I-95 traffic in northern Virginia, on its way back to New York and the colder climes after a wedding in Williamsburg with college friends from William & Mary, now already three years past graduation.

Her left leg was curled up against the door – perfect as a balancing place for her iPhone, in constant use. Her hair was pulled back into a tight bun, the way she used to wear it when she did gymnastics in high school. Her dress, the one that makes her gym-toned legs look extra tanned, hung from the back door handle.

Other cars could hear the blaring music leaking out the doorjambs, her depression playlist of lost-love power ballads. She looked green, positively nauseous as she went back in her head over the weekend’s events.

It had been fun, one supposed, to party with old friends. Hard to get them all in one place these days. So many have left the east coast for grad school, or Europe, or ridiculously high-paying tech jobs in the Bay Area. But most came.

The food was surprisingly good, the bar serving tasty and refreshing drinks all night, the music fun.

But, God, why had she left and taken a drive with him? He was still the impossibly good-looking asshole she’d remembered from their college days together – the perpetually drunk frat boy from a well-connected family who’d kept putting his hand down her harem-girl costume at the ‘Lawrence of Sigma Nu’ party, showing off for his friends. He wanted to take her to his family’s boat, to the very place she’d fallen for his line of bullshit the first time, half a dozen years ago.

Once they’d finished, he supposed out loud that they ought to get back. He made sure to take her new Manhattan phone number, just to be polite, as if he’d ever call, which, intellectually, she knew he wouldn’t. He’d always had the good manners of the rich boy he was to his core. Minutes after they got back to the reception, he was back in his new BMW and gone without the slightest trace.

The only lasting thing she had was a painfully red rash around her mouth from his too-carefully groomed stubble that she somehow found completely irresistible after two or three too many fruity drinks at that damned open bar.

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