There is no present like this time

In a world as fast paced as this, we still only have the moments that every man and woman and every creature on the planet have in experience. Whether your time on earth was a short thirty years in pre-historic time or those same thirty years in the middle of the Dark Ages, still those moments of your life come and go. All those presents are past. And when we live in constant expectation, hope and anxiety about the future, we are only partially dwelling in this present. Similarly, our minds and selves are invested and placed in the past—for good or ill—we are just residing in the present but not open to it. With so many things to occupy the mind in twenty-first century, we are blessed to have any moment where we can be present to ourselves. Other forces command our attention and some of us are easily led. We are constantly entertained but that must distract us from the original nature of ourselves on this planet. This is not to showcase the singular quality of heroes and geniuses; it is simply to note that our places in time and place and family and fortune and tribe give us perspectives that can contribute to a dialogue about what it means to live at this particular moment. It is elusive because it is background of our lives, unless we stop, take a breath and make measure.


We may never know this particular moment for several reasons. We delude ourselves into thinking that this particular moment is just like its sister moment before and after. This one moment will predictably lead to the next. But, in fact, this may be a singular moment; one where everything changes. Where both the past and future are re-cast and re-calibrated. But this singularity is dependent on our showing up, which few of us really do. We may be able to divide the human race into large categories by where their orientation rests—to the past, to the future, to the present.


So, each moment is a gift but like many gifts, we don’t acknowledge the gift or the giver. In fact, we may pass along the present because we are not ready to receive it. Maybe, to be present, one needs to meditate deeply, to be centered, to wrap oneself against the onslaught of the noise around us and most importantly, the din within.


I do also think that being in the presence of others in conversation or prayer can help us embrace the moment. We know when this happens because these moments are memorable. We slow down time and focus here and now. Our need to connect overrides the noise and chaos, the worry about yesterday and the troubles of tomorrow.


There was today

This evening

This sunset

This moment before twilight

Just when the osprey returned to the nest to feed her chicks.

That moment.

That present.

That gift.

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Lessons my father would have taught me had he lived

I thought about writing this essay as I was trying to figure out some mechanical problem. At home, I happily tackle nearly every problem—plumbing, electrical, digital–despite not ever knowing what I am doing. This attitude distinguishes this part of my life from most of my other experiences where I don’t try my hand unless I am nearly an expert. I think I picked this up from academic training where you learn to deny your interest in anything but your own area. Friends ask my opinion about all sorts of things and I can always defer, “I am sorry to say that is really outside my area.” This doesn’t work when we are trying to figure where to go for dinner but it works in lots of other areas, especially with other academics.


In hacking the repair of a broken ceiling fan, I was thinking about all the wisdom and know-how that my father may have passed on if he lived past the age of 45. When he died, I was 14 years of age and he was right in the middle of teaching me to be a caring respectful and contributing adult. For me, his oldest daughter, he held high expectations for my character. He could have cared less about other things I could have achieved. I wonder if I would have held the same ideals in place for my own children.

Lesson #1 Fix things
So, my willingness to tackle these projects can be traced, I think, to playing around in our cellar where my father’s tools were randomly gathered. He never had any nicely arrayed selection of screwdrivers, saws and hammers. In fact, I don’t think we ever asked permission to use his tools, or take odd pieces of pipe and plywood. We were never asked to put things back where we found them as well and I am imagining that my father must have run over plenty of these tools when he was mowing the lawn. But certainly as I think about it, had he lived and had I asked, I am quite certain he would have taught me how to fix a washing machine agitator. He already taught me how to build a motor and to understand the armature and the magnetism of the electric current through the metal bars.
He has also taught us how to mount an old lawn mower motor on a chassis so we could make a go-cart. I remember playing with the spark plug. This was all great fun. I don’t remember my mother ever warning my father that we could hurt (Our first go-cart didn’t have brakes.) This all makes me think that I would have been miserable under this current regime of parenting.
We also build a miniature golf course, digging up holes in the lawn and adding sand traps and water features. We used saws and hammers and nail and string and whatever we could find. We would regularly send divots sailing through the air, borrowing my father’s clubs and ripping up the lawn, Once again; he seemed not to mind at all—the lawn or the golf clubs. It was as if we could do anything we wanted as long as we were busy and learning things and not just hanging around. He was at the heart of him, a hacker. Someone who would apply a temporary fix and be happy with it. So from him in observation and in instruction, I learned to work with my hands and to fix things that I could. Part of this, I am certain, were the requirements of being working class. Calling in a repairman to fix the toilet is out of the question. It compromises your manhood and working class resilience.

Lesson #2 Being a man

My father was a veteran of World War II. He was a lace weaver early in this working life. I recently learned from the Census data that his birth year was estimated to be 1919. We thought it was 1917 or 1918 and his birthdate the 17th or 18th of August. It seems odd to me that much of this is unconfirmed. As a man who married late (30 years or so) maybe because of the war, maybe because he didn’t want to settle down, he was a father quickly About eleven months after they married I was born, a baby girl, when maybe a boy would have been more welcome, although I never felt like that. I think in his expectations for his children, my father couldn’t tell his sons from his daughters. We could all play baseball and drive the go-cart. He could all be good in school. We could all be crazy and silly.

My father taught me how to be a man. I considered that he was out in the world, doing things and fixing things and helping people and making money and I wanted that. I had no interest in cooking and sewing and being in the house when all the action was outside. He was to me what people in the fifties would call a “stand-up” guy, the sort of man who did the right thing, who honored his obligations and kept his word. I wanted that, too. I didn’t want to be liked in school but I did want to do the right thing. From an immigrant family with a tradition of working the fields, he distrusted money made in other ways. He urged me to save my money to buy a house as quickly as I could and to avoid the rigged rich man’s game—the stock market. He was constantly busy. I never recall him sitting with a book, except when we were on his lap and he was reading a story. As a man, he was different from any of the men on our block. He obviously loved children, loved their play, and admired their imagination. That went for all kids. While it may have been a manly thing to assign all of this to older siblings or to the women, my father dove right it. What kind of man did that? When I think about his tools, his golf clubs, his ceremonial sword from the Philippines, a cellar full of the body of washing machines, tubes of mercury and vials of oils and grease—all were available to us. In retrospect, I think, my gosh what a generous adult. What an embrace of our creativity and curiosity.  What sort of dangers did he leave for us to discover? Did we need more protection?


Lesson #3 Being a stand-up guy

And, he was the rare individual who could find a lonely person in a crowd and seek them out for company. Even though, he could be the life of the party and the center of attention—which he never sought. In this part of this personality, he was everything I wanted to be. A few months before he died, we went to the 9th grade father-daughter dance and he made a point of dancing with all the girls whose fathers were sitting things out. I asked him about this and he told me—in a moment that I still see in my mind’s eye, that like him, I could spot loneliness and sadness and when I did (and because I could) I was obligated to do something to ease that pain. I don’t know how his friends regarded him but I know he was a good man, always willing to lend a hand. I see much of him in my brother and his generosity and in this kindness to his children and to people in general. I remember as well how many times aunts and uncles would tell how much I would miss him and how much he loved us. Maybe, that is what one says to children whose father has passed away suddenly. I read it, however, as a sincere concern because he made it clear how much we loved us.

Lesson #4 The excitement of the tiny

I cannot look back and take an honest look at our income and expenses. I really don’t know how much my parents struggled over money. I know that my mother would have imposed a budget on my father’s spending and drinking if she could have. We lived in a house that they owned but it constantly needed repair. That wore on her; he was more relaxed about that and everything else. I share his tendency to put off addressing issues until I have to and her anxiety about things precipitously falling apart. He dreamed of living on a farm and for a while he had rabbits. I think he had other dreams for us as well. My mother, I think, dreamed of not having so much to attend to and not carrying so much of the burden of feeling not up to any of the tasks that presented themselves. Whenever we asked her what she wanted for Mother’s Day or Christmas, she always said, “Peace and quiet,” which we could never give her.

But the dreams of a farm, the possibility of a great vacation, like trips for ice cream—everything was more fun when my father was around. We would bring us snacks when he came home from the bar he used to frequent. He would be inordinately excited about this. He would buy the latest toy and happily try it out with us. I am doing my best to remember that lesson. With aging and aging friends and anticipating the next few decades, I find my mind more occupied by my mother’s perspectives than my fathers—more about loss and anxiety and less about fun and possibilities and living for today.


Lessons #5 Lessons about lessons

One could note that all of these lessons may be seen through rose-colored glasses. Maybe, I would have fought with him. Maybe, he would have placed obstacles in the path of college or VISTA or graduate school. Maybe, my coming out in my thirties would have been delayed until he passed away. None of this is knowable, of course. So, I do my best to piece this all together with remnants of memories, like any storyteller, fashioning one plot or the other. It seems that we would all be better off if parents would write letters to their children to answer questions that the children won’t raise until after they are dead. This wouldn’t have to be long detailed accountings of their lives but they would set forth the big questions and the big answers. To know so little about our parents and their parents is to showcase the unfortunate and existential fact of generational developments. We can hardly make sense of the present and can scarcely understand the generation that follows us, even though we were just so recently in their shoes—in the midst of building a career, carving out an identity, obsessed with raising children.

So these lessons that I am taking from my father are my own markings of his legacy. I am quite that there is plenty left on the cutting room floor and even more that I have so incorporated into my core identity that I can tell his influence apart from my own thoughts.

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Can an old dog teach new tricks?

It remains a question whether someone who has taught successfully (as measured by student evaluations and peer assessments) at the undergraduate level can teach students of her/his own age. After all, a skilled kindergarten teacher may be out of place and skill-set in high school science or maybe not. Maybe, the meta-talent of teaching (deep understanding of content, profound comprehension of where students are, the ability to change tone, accent and appeal, the meeting of where students are with the challenge of where they will be after an encounter with the material) rests far above the content and specifics of teaching physical science or English. Maybe, some of us are master teachers, who are not only good in specific classrooms and subjects, we can also think about the process of teaching broadly and deeply. Some gifted teachers may be able to teach almost anything to anyone.

The actual genius and mastery of teaching is in itself a rare thing. Despite fifteen years of college-level teaching, I am nowhere near being that exceptional teacher but if an interest in self-improvement and a commitment to engaging teaching were half the formula, I would be well on my way. To teach the transferability of my teaching chops, I decided to teach a course at our local lifelong program housed at the local university. Typically, these programs are geared to adults sixty years and over and are peer led. No tests, no credit, no stress—just the joy of learning. Courses include history, arts, wellness, creative expression and others as well as travel and special interest groups. My plan was to teach one concept in sociology (the sociological imagination) and have older students apply this to their lives. The sociological imagination suggests that we cannot understand our own lives without understanding the social, historical, political and cultural environments of the time. This concepts fights against our tendency to believe that we are self-made women and men and points us to an examination of generational differences, changes in norms and values, changes in material conditions and much more. The students were challenged to write short autobiographies and then translate these into creative projects, fashioning sociologically informed stories of their lives. The class was to meet for three sessions in early December 2017.

The challenge of the comfort zone

As the time of the class drew near, self-doubt and panic began to set in. Could I take an exercise that worked with undergraduates to a classroom where students ranged from their mid-sixties to their late-eighties? Could I interest students in sociological ideas? Would they be willing to share their observations about their lives in a setting like this? Could I reasonably expect students to create class projects in such a short time? And, could I do this in three weeks of classes that were 90 minutes long? And, most importantly, after teaching undergraduates for such a long time, what made me think I could teach people my own age and above? As I wrote earlier, are those teaching skills really transferable?

I have to admit to suffering a nightmare before each of the first two classes. These were completely typical anxiety dreams, the first about not being able to get to my classroom because the elevator had disappeared and left in its place was a drawbridge that was up. The second involved teaching a classroom full of mustache wearing lumberjacks in a room with twelve doors, all opening in rapid succession. When I followed a noisy marching band to quiet down, I got lost in my own college in the toy department and couldn’t find my classroom again. Completely normal. That I still suffer from these after teaching so long is a topic for another essay. Let’s just stipulate that I did not imagine that teaching students my own age would be a walk in the park.

However, I must say that I very much enjoyed working with older adults. It is a wonderful experience to share the benefits of the learning one has done, as an older teacher and as an older student. Because I have been working with these ideas for so long, I have distilled the essence and promise of them. My version of sociology may be pretty far from versions held by other sociologists. I suppose this is the case for poets, as well. I may oversimplify the ideas that are core to the discipline. But, for me, these concepts and theories are profoundly helpful for people to understand who they are in the world. And, because, older adults have an opportunity to look back and reflect on their lives, the sociological imagination allows us to see both broad strokes of history as well as the contingent natures of our life paths.

Organization of the class

The course met three times. During the first class, we discussed the sociological imagination and the ideas of sociologist, C. Wright Mills. I asked each of the students to tell the class about his/her career and the paths not taken—careers that, in retrospect, they may have pursued had circumstances been different. In a class of sixteen, only one man would have followed the same career path. I also asked the students to identify five historical events that happened during their lifetimes that they believed had the greatest impact on them. With a twenty-year difference between the youngest and oldest student in the class, we readily identified the differences between growing up as a child of the depression and experiencing childhood as a member of the baby boom generation. The impact of these differences could be readily traced to the older students’ life courses. For the second class meeting, students were tasked with writing a three-paragraph autobiography, which they would share with other students in class.

In the second meeting, students exchanged their stories in small groups, where I asked them to identify common themes and differences. Out of these conversations emerged several points of agreement and common understandings. In this class, I offered a number of resources where students could research their histories.

For the third session, students were asked to begin to think about a creative way to tell their life story or to focus on a transformational event. Not all students were prepared to do this assignment. However, a few were and these were insightful expressions. Many students noted that they had never thought about the historical context of their lives; others said this assignment prompted them to begin chronicling their life story for their children and grandchildren. Still, others reported that they began to better understand their life course after doing some research on historical events. Students who took up the challenge of doing the creative project used the metaphor of life as a great unveiling, as a bookshelf with stories to be told and as a spreadsheet with pluses and minuses and large fields of undetermined outcomes. In this final class, I also distributed The Summoned Self by David Brooks, the columnist for the New York Times, an essay that explores the contingency of careers and life plans which I thought would resonate with a number of the students.

In my undergraduate teaching, I always do this assignment along with the students in my class. On one occasion, I create a three dimensional board game with Chutes-and-Ladders-like paths signifying unearned good luck and undeserved bad luck all winding through historical events and personal mileposts. Because I have spent most of the past twenty years as a PhD sociologist, I sometimes imagine that I have already examined every facet of my life worth examining. However, in the assignment, I focused on my year as a VISTA Volunteer and realized for the first time how profound that experience had been. In fact, I ended up dividing my life into Before VISTA and After VISTA. I got to include Parables, little books where events of that year taught me lessons I am still processing and missing photographs where images of people and events that were key are missing from my scrapbooks. This exercise took research—fact checking and memory checking— to make the story complete. I found it incredibly rewarding, despite the fact that I thought I had already covered this territory of my personal autobiography. Having the opportunity to discuss this project in the comfort of a classroom of my peers made all the difference for me.

The next round

With few exceptions, the students recommended that the course be taught again, offered in five or six sessions instead of just three. Most observed that they would continue working on the project they began in class. Students also observed that the course included just enough sociology. I know that from the experience of teaching this course that older students like small group work. They also appreciate a speaker who speaks loudly and clearly and who writes carefully on the board. Some are interested in more reading related to the topic; other less so.

I aim to think more clearly about the learning styles and approaches of the older student. Many have wonderful experiences that would readily be the subject of some compelling story-telling. If in the next round of this course, we can build up sufficient trust among the members of the class, I would like to showcase these stories in a public setting. With two semesters left to teach at my university, I am also more sensitive and aware than ever of the importance of understanding the students in front of me, from their generational membership to their culture to the ways in which the world manifests itself to them. What I most interested in is what I can learn from them in the limited time we have together.




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Giving Until It Helps

There is a lot of good in the world. We focus too much focus on people and institutions that are behaving badly and on things that are not working, major failures and minor aggravations. Instead, we should be paying attention to things that really matter more—like the decent work of millions of people who assure through adhering to social conventions that our lives are livable and in many cases, pleasurable. David Brooks recently quoted Pope Francis who described people who were kind to the needy, who took their turn, and who instead of running the other driver out of the merge lane waved him into traffic, as “the artisans of the common good” ( I strongly support celebrating this sort of behavior simply to remind us that without it, we’d need to be more vigilant, more wary of each other and require more protection from the other guy. Think of the quiet comfort we enjoy in daily interactions and how one rude clerk or nasty customer can rattle our whole day. Pile too many of these together makes us bitter, prone to act in kind, setting off our own discharges and sparks of misery.

We don’t hear enough about small acts that make a difference, like making a loan through KIVA. About twelve years old, KIVA invests money to micro-entrepreneurs in 82 countries across the world ( KIVA is not a government agency, neither is it funded by major philanthropists. KIVA relies on small donors—as little as $25—to fund its work. To date, 2.7 million loans amounting to $1.09 billion dollars have been granted to farmers, shop owners, parents who need to pay school fees for their children and other reasons. More than 1.7 million lenders—average citizens and community groups—have loaned these funds. And, in 96.9% of the time, these loans have been repaid. Once repaid, these funds can be re-lent to support the dreams of another entrepreneur or hopeful parent. I established a student-managed KIVA fund at my university, loaning more than $2500 over a five year period. We have funded cucumber farmers in Estonia, a truck driver in Belarus, a women’s coop in Chile, a store in Peru and many more endeavors. We feel that we contributing in a small way to the economic welfare of the individual, her family and her larger community. Certainly we are not saving the world, but we are contributing in a small way to do our part.

Each at the end of year, I receive a report on our fund which prompts me to make another loan. I defer the choice of who to support until I get a chance to meet with my sociology class. Here, we look at our portfolio of outstanding loans to see where we would like to make this small investment. It challenges students to think about how much difference we can make in someone’s like with a $25 loan. Our loan joins others until the amount requested, let’s say $500, is fulfilled. Once the loan is granted, we’ll get reports on the progress of the project and begin to receive loan repayments. To maximize the sense of community, individuals can create a team made up of people who share a common interest—members of a church group, a school, a large family or other basis. The team manages a portfolio of loans and maybe even engages in some friendly competition with other teams about who can loan the most money or manage the most loans. There are more than 36, 000 teams that loan through KIVA but the two leading teams drew my attention (

In first place among the teams with the greatest amount loaned are KIVA Christians, founded in August 2008. They have 20,648 members and have lent $42,000,000 dollars pooled in 758,425 loans. KIVA Christians loans have biblical inspiration, which they cite in their reasons to give. “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved, so you must love another” John 13:34 and from Corinthians 13:8 “Love never fails.”

In second place is the A+ team of Atheists, Agnostics, Skeptics, Freethinkers, Secular Humanists and the Non-Religious, also established in 2008 The A+ team has 38,108 members (almost twice as many as the Christians), loaning $36,109,650 (less than the Christians) with more than 1,200,000 loans (about half a million more than the Christians). The Atheists et al loan money because they “care about human beings and understand that it takes people to help people. We are one human family and know that people can do good without believing in a god.”

What are we to make of this? I am wondering which group came first? Maybe, a Christian and her pal, the atheist, met in a coffee shop and set down this dare.

I bet that we Christians can donate more money than you non-believers.

We’ll take that bet and challenge you to put your money where your God is, replied the Atheists.

I suppose we could review these portfolios to see what causes each team has supported. Have the atheists spread their investments far and wide while the Christians have supported a different set of causes? Who is supporting the Palestinians? Muslims? Women and children? School fees for girls? Maybe, there is very little difference between their giving patterns and if so, why donate under the banners of Christianity or non-faith. Does even something as seemingly non-partisan as giving a loan carry partisan baggage? What is really the best way to organize ourselves to do some good? Maybe, a donation to KIVA is, in fact, not the best use of these donations.

I would affiliate with neither team nor claim for giving. I don’t want to give because we are all members of one big human family. That squishy premise doesn’t motivate me at all. On the other hand, loving one another as God loves us also leaves me wanting for more. I can harbor all the positive feelings for my fellow human beings and wish them well as other beings on the planet but until I seriously consider the moral obligations that underpin the simple statement that all human lives have equal value, this one human family loved as God loves us, doesn’t carry much weight. Neither principle calls out my obligation to give in a world where the spoils of our economy and polity are so unevenly distributed and where some have so much and others. These inequities should serve as an embarrassment to all of us.

This, for me, is more a matter of justice than it is kindness and compassion. Similarly, I don’t want to give only when the mood strikes me–when I see that suffering child or when I am moved by a sad tale. I want to connect this giving to commitments that motivate me do more and to do it effectively. If I can shop for a cellphone, I can certainly research whether my donations are doing the most good they can. If the world were suffering from too much kindness and compassion, that would be one thing. But the fact that most of the world lives at subsistence level and a small percent of us are doing quite well is quite another. And, maybe, a donation to KIVA is not the best use of my charitable dollars after all.

As a privileged member of a rich nation and a beneficiary of the gifted generation, I believe that I have encumbered unplayable debts. These include government programs and unparalleled prosperity. A recent book (Goldfield 2017) argues that the generous governmental programs—GI bills for education and homeownership, virtually free college tuition at public institutions, and much more—were designed to lift the working class to the middle class. This gave many of us baby boomers and by extension, our children, great advantages that the current college-age population can scarcely believe. We do have to note here that those benefits were not distributed to blacks and other minority groups but they did establish the point that well-crafted government programs served as escalators into better lives for millions of American families. And, according to most economists, these approaches were far more effective than tax-cut supply-side approaches championed by conservative ideology.

It didn’t occur to me until much later in life how much these advantages propelled me and my peers into a middle class life. If I count up all the fortunate breaks that fell my way, all the investments made in me because of the sacrifices and forethought of others, it is clear I will never repay these. How do I repay those Catholic sisters and my parochial school for an excellent education? How do I repay the government for those social security and GI benefits that arrived just in time after my father’s early death? How do I repay the enormous gift of free tuition for four years from my state college? How do I repay that Ivy League university for their scholarship to this working class student so I could earn a Masters Degree, which impressed many people more than it should have? How about those state-sponsored low-interest loans to first-time homebuyers that allowed me, a single woman, to buy a house after three banks had turned down my application? I could go on. These benefits meant sacrifice on the part of others, of course, and I have reaped the benefits greatly.

Prosperity for many of us came because the U.S. In the fifties and sixties was the unchallenged world economic power. This afforded us with great advantages.  This sort of wealth and wealth-making opportunities seduce us into thinking that we climbed through the class hierarchy and the world pecking order due to hard work and brilliant business acumen when in fact, other forces were in play. Much of the ease and prosperity we enjoy comes at the expense of others. The masters of the universe and kings of commerce have figured out how to create a global engine that spits out low-cost consumer products using the lowest wage labor and under-valued raw materials. We could make the argument that our brothers and sisters in the global south subsidize our comfortable lifestyles in the global north. Behind that great curtain of commerce, we cleverly learn not to ask too many questions about who has made this shirt and iPhone and under what conditions. We ignore that man behind the curtain and assume that some one is taking care of these questions. So much for the great human family.

Given that acknowledgement that we have benefitted from programs (state supported and private) and a favorable economy, what should guide our course for giving back. How much and to whom? What commitments should steer these values here? Local giving to alumni organizations? Scholarships to children like me? Perhaps there are other considerations to examine. Is all giving equally good?

For me, the commitment here rests upon basic math. As Peter Singer has calculated, the rich of the world (the 10% of earners) could easily devote 10% of their income to the poorest people on the planet affording them basic educations, clean water, avoiding needless deaths, better nutrition, sanitation and more (2015). Importantly, this would include not the just the richest citizens but many of us who have middle-class lifestyles. Singer’s plan is not directed at only those people we imagine are comfortable enough to give; he would argue that many of us are in that situation. As radical as it seems, this plan would right the world, as we know it. And, this is simply seen in an organization like KIVA or Heifer where a small donation of $25 (a dinner at a reasonably priced restaurant, yet another T-shirt) could really make a difference in saving a life.

The developing effective altruism movement directs our charitable dollars where they will do the most good to organizations and approaches that are vetted and proven to work. Many things that we expect to address poverty, illness and illiteracy don’t. (For more information on this movement and its applications, see Derek Thompson’s article Movements like the effective altruism movement focus on populations with the greatest need addressing these with field-tested solutions. This approach eliminates the argument heard from so many—who knows where your money goes—and also addresses the concern that one may be throwing good money after bad.

So clarifying the motive to give–those unplayable debt and the great extremes in wealth built upon accidents of birth, the unfair distribution of spoils—and targeting effective strategies to address basic human need—work for me as a compass point for better giving and perhaps deeper commitments to making a difference. This is not to say that this movement lets me live with a clear conscience. Our complicated world is too ethically challenging to do that. But I can live with these questions and hope that they continue to reveal a truer path for me.


Brooks, David. 2018. How Would Jesus Drive? New York Times, Jan. 4.

Goldfield. 2017. The Gifted Generation: When Government Was Good. New York: Bloomsbury.

Singer, Peter. 2015. The Most Good You Can Do. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Thompson, Derek. 2015. The Greatest Good. The Atlantic online



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Your Prius is just not that into you

For many people, buying a new car is a culminating adventure. It reflects all the best we see in ourselves. Marketers want consumers to believe that cars are sexy. That is an amazing sales job. Really. What would make a Jaguar sexier than a BMW or a Ford Focus? Is it the sleekness of the body? Probably not because lots of the world’s sexiest women have curves. Is it their perfume? Is it their come hither headlights? Is it their dazzling bling festooned as trim? Is it those dizzying hubcaps? Is it the manly pose or those virile engines, growling their way out of the showroom looking for a fight? Is it their sense of adventure, with their four-wheel drive, charging off to the wilderness with conveniences unavailable to the grant rajahs when they traveled the Silk Road? Of course, given the number of four-wheel drive vehicles sold these days, if we all go to remote places, it will get very crowded very fast. And there will be nothing to do once we get there, except to compare each other’s trim packages and all-purpose gear racks.

Sure, one can buy a car for its sexiness but I ache for something more practical and less prone to harassment. I mean if you’re sexy, people (and maybe other cars) are going to appreciate you less for your brain and more for how good you look even if those looks come at the expense of plenty of visits to a factory trained mechanic. In any case, after driving my 2006 Toyota for 250,000 miles and almost ten years, I decided to buy a new car. Because of technological advances these days, a lot happens between the old model and the brand new one. It is like going from driving a tricycle where finding the bell is obvious and the gizmos are simple to commanding a B-52 bomber where access to the radio is cleverly hidden behind a series of branching commands and where pushing the wrong button gets you ejected from your seat over North Korea.

My new car is a Prius Prime. It is much sportier looking than I am; no matter how much I try to dress like a hipster. We are style-wise a serious mismatch. My car looks like a Batmobile would if it cared about fuel efficiency and I am more like a sub-subcompact sedan.

I understood these differences when I bought the car and harbored some reservations about the incongruence of me in this car. Would my friends think, “Uh oh, mid-life crisis” even though mid-life is just a distant memory for me?” Would they think, “Uh oh, she forgot to look at the front of the car to see that the grill actually looks like it is growling and the curved back looks like someone got stuck in a yoga pose gone wrong?” I am tired of conversations with friends who say they couldn’t live with “that car” in their driveway. It is sort of like introducing your bad new boyfriend to your family when you know that they are thinking, “I need to check this guy out on Google to see what sort of criminal record he has. This will never last.

So, I accepted that the style of the car and my own were in conflict. What I didn’t comprehend until I drove the car for some time was that we were intellectually, spiritually and romantically at odds as well. Over the first few months together, several encounters made this clear. For starters, I have a lovely friend named Janet. She is nearly twenty years my junior, always nicely dressed, mannerly and exudes a cool intelligence. If someone guessed she was a professor of American Studies, you would nod, yes, of course. Janet visited me about a month ago and I was driving her back to her car, showing her my car’s cool features. Things went well until I was demonstrating the voice-activated commands. It is supposed to be possible to direct commands to the car for help with directions, phone calls, weather reports and other tasks. I pushed the activation button and said, “Directions to Home Depot.” Instead, she suggested Italian restaurants. Wrong. I tried again doing my best to enunciate HOME DEPOT, the way one would address a friend with new hearing aids. She asked me to lower my voice. I turned off the feature before I said something obscene and potentially abusive, which may have been reported to the Cloud as mistreatment. I know we (the car and I) are supposed to be developing a relationship and that the voice activation system needs to get used to my voice. Understanding that, I didn’t want say something I would regret for the rest of our lives. More important relationships have been destroyed by less.

So we decided to have Janet try. “Directions to Home Depot,” she asked pleasantly. The car replied “Home Depot. There are several in your area. Which Home Depot do you want? Please say the number.” And sure enough a list of Home Depots appeared on the screen for us to choose from. Easy. No problem. Now, there is no question. Janet is prettier; she is smarter (she has the better degree); she is younger; she has a non-identifiable accent. All that can be stipulated and agreed upon. But, really? Telling me to lower my voice and then throwing me over for someone the car has just met? Really? This is driver friendly? Seriously?

My partner and I have taken some long trips with the Prius to see how well she knows her way around. We are getting used to the ways in which she understands the world. At her very core, the Prius is a worrier. When I activate Navigation, in addition to providing turn-by-turn directions, she warns, “Twenty miles ahead on the route, stop and go traffic.” “Five miles ahead on the route, slow traffic.” Too much information, for me. I don’t know how much of this advance notice I want because once you reach that location twenty miles down the road, actually the traffic moves well after all. All that worry for nothing. Maybe, this is a way to build more gratitude into our lives. I don’t know. I do think about how helpful this technology would have been earlier in our history. “Flooded river and washed out bridge ten miles ahead on the route” or “Twenty miles ahead on the route, the cavalry has been wiped out by a flank of marauding Huns” or “The Ice Age is about to descend. Recalculating the route.” Or maybe dispense with all the traffic information and share instead some wisdom accumulated over the years, like “you will find in your life’s journey, many blessings disguised as problems,” some Eastern philosophy, maybe. It is a Toyota, after all.

When I got the car, it took me a long time to get used to the new technology. Push buttons and dials must be old-fashioned and fifties retro. Everything is touch-sensitive. It took me a week to figure out how to turn on the radio and another week to learn how to turn it off. I spent another week trying to learn how to turn on the rear window wipers and then found out that there were no rear wipers, after all. The back window is too curvy for wipers, I guess. The glove compartment is jam packed with manuals—one for the car, one for navigation and another couple just for fun. The manuals are so poorly indexed and so clumsily written that they are virtually useless. They are as obscure as the Bible in Aramaic and I fear I will die before the easier to read King James Version of the user manuals are written. I pulled out the instructions to learn how to plug in the car to charge it. It actually is one of the easiest things to do in this car. The charging cord has two ends, one goes into a three-prong plug and the other goes into the car. This process was explained in twenty pages and if I had read the instructions, I would have never been able to connect my car to the charging post. It was so full of warnings about inadvertent electrocution that the manual should be used to deter criminals from capital crimes.

It should also be noted that technologically we are in a transition period. As the digital acolytes would console us, the machine-human interface improves all the time. We don’t understand our computers and they don’t completely understand us, either. At this point, the Prius talks too much for my taste in situations where silence and rectitude would be the best measures. She tells me when I am stalled in traffic, not always right away, but right about the moment when I am about to ask her, “Why the heck did you bring me this way?” If things get really trafficky, she does offer “Traffic up ahead. Do you want me to re-route this trip?” But she never tells you ahead of time what that means until after you agree to let her have her lead, sort of like trusting that the horse knows his way back to town. Suppose my car’s computer has been hacked and I am being led to a den of Russian spies or worse yet, a worse traffic jam or to a platoon of Humvees, organizing and eager to run over tree-hugging environmentalists like my car and me. To reach a compatible relationship, I accept that I have to trust her decision-making and she has to trust mine as well, which I sense she is less and less impressed with all the time.
So, sometimes there’s too much information but there are also instances when she is silent when she should speak up. This is exactly like when you are driving with your partner who is giving you too much advice and you suggest that when they are driving, they can be boss of the damn road. Then, they get sulky and instead of warning you that are driving off a cliff, they simply shut up for revenge. Then when you ask why they didn’t warn you, they simply say, “If you are so smart, you don’t need any help from the likes of me.” This silent treatment is illustrated by another encounter with a friend.

So about a month ago, I was driving a friend back to her car. My car was showing off, pointing out directions and being very accurate and trustworthy. Actually, over-involved, I would say. We were talking and I turned the wrong way down a one-way street. My friend didn’t notice but I did. I screamed at the car, “Hey, why didn’t you say something?” and banged the control panel. She remained silent for a minute and then said, as she has many times before, “Recalculating the route.” No apology. No sense of the potential harm done. Sometimes she repeats this so many times, I am pretty certain she is in a trance, reciting this mantra until she regains her composure. (I might do the same when I really mad as well.) I have no proof of this but I am pretty certain I detect in her voice that she is arching her left eyebrow and shaking her head in weary disbelief. I also know that the computers in the car are connected to some cloud where the vehicle and headquarters transmit information back and forth to each other—mainly about me, I suspect. I know that her assessments of my driving behavior are landing up in some big database or being written to my car’s little black box. There is no way to challenge this secret channeling of information. I have mentioned to the car that I have due process rights to confront my accuser but she pretends not to understand my point.

The car also has “safety enhancement features—the lane departure notice, the crash detector, and the pedestrian alert system.” These are handy enough. You can easily de-activate these with a simple command although imagine explaining to a judge that you hit the pedestrian because you unplugged your warning switch. “Your honor, in a gesture of recklessness, this faulty human deactivated the pedestrian warning system, with the obvious motive of striking my client.” If you have all these systems, warning you all the time, beeping and flashing and applying the breaks, pretty soon you are ready to hand over the driving reins to the car itself. And, of course, that’s where we are going, of course. It may be that my Prius is not that into me but we can find a way to co-exist. Either she needs to develop social skills or I need to be a better driver. No way that is going to happen. And, I must admit, if my 85 year old self can climb into my car and have it take me to the opera without my supervision, all well and good. I can be a backseat driver with her fully in control, as into each other as machines and humans can comfortably be.

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The Woman Who Mistook Herself for Malcolm Gladwell


Although one of the blessings of maturity is the loss of vanity, older women and men are not completely devoid of a certain level of care about their appearances. For some of us, not reaching for that bottle of Clairol is an act of political defiance but while for others, they will visit the hair salon for a monthly coloring and send a check to Ms. as compensation. Not having plastic surgery (despite the promises and promotion) or injections of Botox or collagen is an act of acceptance that one’s skin will sag and wrinkle. It may come to pass that one will look her age or someone else’s idea of what seventy looks like. It is the embrace of “What the heck? How long can I fight this battle?” The truth of it is that some of us could afford a little work, as it euphemistically referred to. My fear is that plastic surgery would be like home repair. You ask the workmen to do one thing and they discover that the whole foundation is rotting and must be immediately replaced. What I am imagined was a tiny lift here and there is a major re-engineering, making me look less like my fifty year self and more like that porcelain baby doll I used to have that wet herself. You get to be a certain age and you avoid being photographed, not because you are running from the law but because you are still not used to looking like the person you have become. It is annoying to listen to people my age (late sixties) immediately attach the person who took the little snapshot with her iPhone. “Why did you focus on my neck?” “Why did you take this picture outside? The light is so bright.” “Wait. Let me put on my scarf and sunglasses and coat.” So much for aging gracefully.


Last year, I was giving a talk at Cornell University. This followed the publication of my book about teaching in colleges and universities. The semester had just ended and I was delighted to be taking a trip to this campus since I respect the work they do. On the second day of my visit, I walked to the lecture hall and saw a poster announcing a speaker for the same speaker series that I was a part of. I was excited and grew even more so when I saw that this was Malcolm Gladwell, a well-known staff writer for the New Yorker and best selling author of kazillon books (Outliers, David and Goliath, Blink, Tipping Point). I was delighted to be in the same company as him. I must admit that I was a little star struck by the possibility, maybe even giddy. Really.


As I grew closer, I realized that the picture on the poster was not Malcolm Gladwell at all; it was me. Now, I don’t think there are many women who would mistake themselves for a man and be happy about it. And, I don’t think there are many people who would be flattered to be mistaken for Malcolm Gladwell, no matter how many books he has sold. (Personally, I think he is very cute in a geeky sort of way because he is not very cute in another sort of way.) I must also say that I hadn’t seen this picture of me before. It had been taken by university photographers in their biennial round up of faculty for up-to-date photographs for university publications. It was horrid. It was me, of course, but not the me, I know I myself to be—my fifty-five year old me with curlier hair and fuller eyebrows.


Below is the evidence.   One of these photos is Malcolm Gladwell; the other is me. Now, imagine these images on a poster at some distance away and you can easily see the resemblance between Gladwell and myself. And, you can sympathize with my disappointment, both at mistaking myself for Gladwell and for imagining that he and I would share the same lecture series.


download-3.jpg                   download-2.jpg


I assign readings by Gladwell in my sociology courses and intend to continue to do so despite our recent misunderstanding, not that he is aware of it. I have learned lessons here. One is not to appear on any sort of poster, whether issued by a friendly university or the FBI. The second is to try to regain ownership and distributorship of photographs of yourself. I just checked Google Images and found images of myself I wasn’t aware of. This is terrifying. Finally, you should really be careful about hairstyles. A decidedly poufy hairstyle in a nation of straight ironed, blown out hairstyles is certain to make you a likely candidate for a Malcolm Gladwell look-alike contest.

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How the dolphins brought Christianity to Scotland: Reflections on a wee trip

Travel, it is said, broadens the mind and enlarges the spirit. Travel, it must also be admitted, can confuse the best of us and disrupt our daily routines. I think it was Alain de Botton who celebrates Proust’s idea that we should travel widely and observe the world closely. Proust himself took none of his own advice, writing his books from bed and scarcely leaving his home village for the final years of his life. Of course, in Proust’s small world, you could get a world-class madeleine and a wonderful cup of coffee by simply strolling down any street and finding a café that suits your mood. No need to travel to France or Seattle or anywhere actually. But, never mind all that. Having just returned from a tour of a small parallelogram of a country called Scotland, I will share here some of what I have learned. Actually, I traveled approximately only 40 miles in one direction and another forty miles in another and was barely introduced to this fine nation–sort of like meeting the upstanding relatives at a finely catered event instead of mashing it up with whole family at a free-for-all barbeque. So, instead of a grand tour of the continent that my ancestors would have taken (if they had the money and if they weren’t already living on the continent having immigrated here from the Azores relatively recently), I took a wee tour of a tiny part of a small country somewhat connected to a leading empire, although much diminished due to dieting, rioting and possibly ruinous plebiscites.


I learned when I returned to the U.S. that the motto of Scotland is “Nemo me impune lacessit.” Translated “No one provokes me with impunity.” This explains a lot about the history and culture of the nation, especially the Highlands where we spent considerable time learning about clans and battles and flags and revenge. It appears that many of America’s leading gangs trace their origins to the Scottish Highlands. Prominent archivists and historians of the Bloods and Crips and the Sharks and the Jets point to the fighting acumen of the Highlands. That gang thing about never ever backing down from a fight and making a big thing out of a small act of disrespect? Yup, Scottish Highlanders is where they learned all that, somehow.

The truth is that there is much too much history cramped into Scotland given its small land mass. It is about the size of the state of South Carolina but has 120 times the history, more or less of even that storied state. With regard to comprehending this history, no sooner do you think you understand how King James I came to power than it’s time for him to be killed. And, as quickly as a marital alliance is made, it appears that someone or the other is conspiring with the Archbishop or the Viscount Lord of the Dance, to break up the happy couple. That slaughter often results in another murder, leaving an eight-year old boy in charge of a kingdom–never a good idea no matter how divine the right to rule. If I can offer a bit of advice to my Scottish friends, I suggest the Ministers of History and Culture should deliberate carefully over how many castles, monuments, lochs, abbeys, ruins, quaint villages and interesting characters they really need. There is really a lot of this sort of stuff in Scotland. You can find a castle anywhere in Scotland. They seem to be like the Starbucks of Scotland. It is hard to find a non-quaint village. I Googled “not too cute village” this and came up empty. Characters with story-telling charms abound. Monuments loom at every corner. It seems to a first-time traveler that the Scots can’t forget anything, which it seems to me is in direct opposition to Americans who forget most things and are woefully uneducated about even our own history.

To deal with this cultural abundance, I am proposing that some of these landmarks simply be exported to places like Kansas where, if we are to be honest, there is not much going on. And, where there is a lot of interest in America in this sort of thing. We LOVE Downton Abbey and Games of Thrones. And, really think about how much impact this would have on the carbon footprint for the planet. If all the people in the Midwest could travel to Kansas instead of the British Isles, that would be amazing. Imagine a castle or an abbey in the middle of a Kansas wheat field! Beautiful.

Making things even more troublesome in understanding this country is a complicated religious history and the fact that way back when the country was being formed, no one could tell the difference between the president and the pope. In many cases, the men who settled country, who sailed to distant worlds, or marched in to introduce themselves and grab some land at its-a-steal prices, were clerics and monks and abbots, not pioneer men or military guys. Or in some cases, they were all three—priests, pillagers and pilgrims. Imagine if today, Donald, the Hotel Developer, was also leading his men in battle, creating a casino outpost, and on his way to becoming a revered saint. Well, that’s just too much to expect or maybe not.

And making things even more complicated is taking such a journey in your silver years, or whatever the heck the madmen-advertisers are characterizing the retired as these days. I took this tour with fourteen other mature Americans with the Road Scholar company. It is proven fact, I suppose, that one’s interest in history grows with age. I know that this is the case for me. I am more interested in big ideas, in how places settled, and in how the ideas that govern human society come to be than I ever was as a young person. So, we are as an age cohort, perfect captives for a wee educational tour of a lovely place like Scotland. Firms like Road Scholar court us with catalogues chock of centerfolds of active adults having a great time hiking trails that pilgrims have trod, eating food that we wouldn’t touch back at home, and cruising down great waterways. As seniors, we are also in our way a wee bit enfeebled, not necessarily in major ways but just enough to make us less likely to make travel arrangements for ourselves than we used to be. We don’t want to spend weeks finding accommodations and practicing driving on the left side of the road in the Home Depot parking lot. These trips are so well organized and directed that you wind up the tour feeling a lot smarter than you were when you began. Your head is full of stories and facts and your camera is chockfull of sites that you may not be able to place once you get home. But never mind. You have proof you were in Loch Ness and the Edinburgh Castle. Going on a tour also gives you a better perspective on your own life. You have a chance while on holiday to reconsider some life choices that you have made. With a tour diet that includes a full Scottish breakfast (eggs, black sausage, bacon, haggis, toast, porridge and fruit), desert twice a day and appetizers with your caveman-size salmon or lamb chop, you begin to feel like a monk with your home routine of a tiny shot of yogurt and a few crackers for lunch and a Spartan dinner better fit for a house cat. That feeling is a good one because you eventually really should not/could not live for long on a Road Scholar diet.

In a land like Scotland, having been invaded by the Vikings, the Celts, the British and the Beatles with all their linguistic influences, a tourist has to learn a whole new vocabulary. You learn that lochs are lakes except when they are locks; you learn that Kills are churches; glens are plains; fourths are estuaries; and men wear kilts, not plaid skirts

A long bus tour and two boat rides took us to the iconic isle of Iona, we visited the sacred places where abbeys and churches remain from early Christian history. I learned from our guide that dolphins brought Christianity to the island in 563 A.D. It wasn’t until I saw the abbey that the dolphins were supposed to have built that I understood that St. Columbo actually built the abbey and that the dolphins established the tourism industry in that part of the Scotland, actually the first place in the Western hemisphere where dolphins were actually thought to be endearing. And the fact that many of us on the tour have hearing problems made for many completely deranged conversations where we’d repeat in loud voices things we misheard.

Later in the week, we prepared for our visit to the heralded Scone Palace where several kings of Scotland and England had been crowned on the Scone of Destiny, which gave that breakfast pastry an honored, nearly sacred place in the Scottish diet. Once again, it wasn’t until I saw the landmark itself that I realized that the kings were crowned at the Stone of Destiny. But still, the important links here is that the scone is shaped like the stone and is pretty stone-like as well if you let it dry up in your backpack, which I did with great regularity during my visit.

As we know, back not that many generations, our ancestors lived under strained circumstances. Food was often scarce, as was fuel. These deprivations were visited upon the royalty as well as the poorer classes. One thing that seemed in particularly short supply back then was first names; many were simply recycled over and over again. You can admire the Scots for their frugality, of course, but calling one king after the other James or Henry seems ridiculous and downright lazy to me. To make things easier they would affix appellations, like James the Great and James, the Lesser, like we do with birds (the greater grebe, the lesser grebe, grebe the brown and really not a grebe at all.) So, with many kings with the same name, I learned that James II and James IV were the same man, not reincarnated (although they would allow that in Scottish history) but holding two titles as Scotland and England changed ownership several times. I found out that James the Great was succeeded by a Mediterranean relative called Jimmy the Greek who was trading with Edinburgh long before anybody even thought about the European Union.

We also were introduced to other parts of Scottish culture—whisky and sheepherding. We visited a distillery and got to try out two samples of whisky. I learned how to taste whisky, how to appreciate its color, how to taste the subtle nose of the single malt. We tried a 4-year old and an 8-year old whisky. They were distinctively different from each other. The information sheet said that first had tones of peach and almond and the older one had notes of licorice and oak. My own take was that the first tasted like children’s Robitussin and the other like lighter fluid. Paired with a fine cheese and a smelly cigar and it is time to call the EPA.

We were urged by Road Scholar to pack light. We weren’t traveling with a coterie of cabin boys to wait on us hand and foot. We would be lugging around our own bags often enough. Accordingly, I took them at their word and wore one pair of pants, washed out two pairs of quick-drying underwear, promoted by a mountain climber who said she wore them every day (not the pair that I bought, of course) for almost half a year, wore one sweater and one jacket. My clothes were so well worn by the end of the trip that Road Scholar asked me to donate them to their Best of Scotland clothing archive where they will be featured on a mannequin that celebrates light packing in the Rhode Scholar museum.

Much was said to us before our tour about the weather. “Cold for July.” “Wet.” “Foggy and misty.” So, we were ready and not disappointed. I would sum up the weather conditions as follows: steady rain interrupted by showers. But still we had a wonderful time, it was agreed.

On any holiday, the time passes quickly. No sooner than you absorb a ton of information and can speak confidently of Balmy Prince Charley and Robbie Burns than its time to return to your normal life, enriched by your experience and wondering where you left your travel journal, your wooly hat and your traveling companion.





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