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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Evidence in Support of Petition A-3456: Transfer from Bluebirds to the Squirrels

Prior to the May 1st deadline, I filed Petition A-3456, a form to be utilized for reappointments, transfers and readjustments. According to contractual language, evidence in support of petitions must be submitted within two weeks of the filing deadline. Ergo, my evidentiary argument will proceed here, prepared in the requisite typeface and font with the approved margins.

Background

Approximately, sixty years ago, I received appointment to the Bluebirds, somewhat by accident, I feel, in the cold light of retrospection. In early September of 1956, Sister Juliana wrote the word “mosquito” on the board and asked us young scholars if anyone knew this word. My little hand shot up, eager and confident. It happened that earlier that summer that I had read the very well-reviewed Bobbsey Twins at the Seashore where the word mosquito appears at a pivotal point in the narrative arc. In all the reading I had done to date (approximately eleven months worth, no word had ever stumped me. I spent an unproductive ten minutes trying to sound out the word but I couldn’t get it. I had to ask my mother who seemed very surprised that a rising second-grader couldn’t figure this out on her own. In any case, “mosquito” was mine, a word I have never forgotten. Neither did my mother ever let me forget this silly question.
When my hand went up in recognition, I had no idea of the consequences of that gesture for my entire life course. This singular answer placed me immediately in the Bluebird reading group with all the attendant privileges and responsibilities afforded the top reading grouimages-1p in the second grade. Just below the Bluebirds were the squirrels, the second rank readers. And, at the bottom of our little hierarchy were the Gophers. The nuns explained to us that the Bluebirds got more schoolwork to do because we could do more work. If we couldn’t keep up with our group, accommodations could be made, measures would be ta
ken. We could be moved to a slower group.

There is never anything subtle about messages to second graders and I worked very hard to remain a Bluebird and vied, I must admit with some embarrassment, to be the biggest little Bluebird. Bluebirds sometimes helped the teacher, got sent on errands, and were asked to present at assemblies. Bluebirds after all were prettimages-2y and cute. Squirrels were rodents, after all, and gophers, well, really they lived under the ground and weren’t very well coordinated.

By accident of the Bluebird start in life, I took an average intelligence and parlayed into a pretty good class rank. Supported by a few underserving scholarships, my long career that has taken me to many places that I hadn’t wanted to go but all in all, I have been a hard worker and more than earned by reputation not because of talent but because my fear of falling behind my peers. The Bluebird classification served me and my employers very well. Sociologists write about the looking glass self and the self-fulfilling prophecy and I am smart enough to understand that my success in life has been built on luck and chance at every turn of events.

images-3So, it is with a sense of sadness and resignation that I am finally recognizing that my Bluebird time has come and gone. I used to be a good Bluebird but now is the time to move to a slower group. Other Bluebirds will be happy to pick up the slack. As a lifelong Bluebird, I know their behavior and their habitat. They are happy to pick up the slack and eager to see if they can do the work better than its previous owner.

There are many fine people who are Squirrels. Actually, they are nicer than Bluebirds and know that talent doesn’t always rise to the top. There is no shame here. I expect to have more time for other pursuits. Proof to support my request can be found in my unanswered emails, my unfriended Facebook contacts and my unwritten tweets. Evidence can be also located in my zoned out responses in meetings and in my undecipherable notes taken during conferences. Finally, my enrollment in Life After the Bluebirds: The Promise of a Squirrel Lifestyle classes serves as the strongest testimony that it is time for me to go. I am willing to accept the consequences of my transfer and understand there is no going back.

Respectfully submitted

 

Sandra Enos

Bluebird Class of 1956-2016

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The beauty of the aging brain

Source: The beauty of the aging brain

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Be the change you wish to see: Speech delivered in 2009

Be the change you wish to see

President and Mrs. Machtley, Vice Presidents, Deans, members of the Board of Trustees, faculty and staff, parents, sisters and brothers, friends, and of course, students whom we celebrate today. Before I begin my remarks this evening, I want to recognize the leadership of President Machtley and the larger Bryant community in bringing students like you to our campus. It is the president who imagines what a campus should be—what sorts of students should join our community and what sorts of educations we will afford them. To me, Bryant University is community of scholars where we all teach and we all learn from each other. Everyday students like you bless me with an education that is fuller and richer than one I could obtain elsewhere. I think we cheat ourselves of a great education unless we embrace lessons that students like you teach us. So, at the beginning, let me thank you the students for contributing to the education and betterment of the Bryant community.

I bring you greetings from faculty and staff.

In Swahili, Professor Kwesiga says,

Na Mungi awabaraki

In Italian from Professor Misuraca

Auguri

From Professor Jiang in Chinese

Gung xi ni men

In Spanish from Professor Gomez

Buena suerta para el future

In Portuguese from Dee Viera

Parabens!

And in Sanskrit from Professor Beldona

Namaste

In these greetings, we congratulate you and wish you well. If I have inadvertently asked, “Please, Mister, could you bring me my horse?” I apologize. As many of you know, it is a challenge and great advantage to speak in a tongue other than one’s own. I wish I had more of those gifts.

You do me a great honor in asking that I share remarks with you this evening. Your accomplishments are impressive; they are hard won. Only you truly know what sacrifices you have made, what challenges you have overcome to be here this evening. What I believe defines our best students is a curiosity about the world, ready to meet its challenges and eager to learn how to equip themselves to meet circumstances and opportunities that we at this moment can hardly imagine. We are here tonight because many people have come before us, leading the way, sacrificing their lives in some cases, deferring their own dreams so that we might have better opportunities. We should recognize that our achievements are as much to their credit as they are to our own hard work.

I will keep my comments brief tonight and aim to connect them directly to theme of this celebration, Be the Change you wish to see, a quotation attributed to Mahatma Ghandi. Ghandi, the man who gave to the world a powerful social movement, that claim that change could come through nonviolent means. This proposition suggests that all of us have a role and a calling to change the world for the better.

Change is one of those cover words that we employ as if we all understood what it meant but we may not. The change I want to talk about is not change that we ache for because we are bored. And it is not change that aims to alter the leadership of an organization or community expected that if we change the leader that everything else will change. But, it is a delusion to believe that if we change the captain, the direction of the ship will change. It may not. Real positive change doesn’t work that way. It takes more than one leader. It takes all of us.

The change we are alluding to this evening is change that we can dream about and work to create. Change that makes the world a better place for more of its citizens. Change that evens out the chances for more us to have a run at the good things in life. I don’t mean here just a nice home, a fancy car, the latest iPod and the newest cell phone with all the coolest features. I mean change that liberates more of us, that means freedom from hunger and from violence, freedom from fear, freedom from neglect and freedom from needless suffering. The change we wish to see is change that reflects all that is good and honorable in human nature. The change that makes us kinder to one another. The change that makes us curious about how the way we live affects other people, maybe those halfway around the planet, maybe in that poor community down the street. The change that starts with me and with us, connects us with others, and allows us to be inspired and to inspire others with our combined dreams, our shared hopes and the blessings of our talents and our virtues.

When I was in your age, just graduating from college, we faced a world in turmoil. Three years before I graduated Dr. Martin Luther King had been assassinated. Robert Kennedy met the same fate just two months after King. Nelson Mandela was in prison. The Berlin Wall divided East and West Germany. We were fighting a contentious war in Southeast. The population of the world stood at 3.7 billion people. We hadn’t heard of global warming. The personal computer hadn’t been invented. Fast forward to this moment a few decades later and we have elected our first Black president. We are concerned with climate change. In the time it takes me to complete this sentence, we will have welcomed one new American baby, four Chinese babies and five Indian babies to our planet joining a population already close to seven billion people. If that sounds hard to wrap your mind around, someone suggested that it is easy. Just think of yourself, your dreams, how much your life means to you and the people who love you, and multiply that by seven billion. Got it? We have emerging economies where the next generation of innovation and invention will most likely arise. And now, we find ourselves in an increasingly interconnected complicated world where ideas, people and products race around our planet with accelerating speed. One billion Google searches a day. Researchers are wondering how if we lived our lives, B.G. before Google. To whom did we address all these questions? You students may wonder how we lived our lives without cell phones, without the Internet, without text messaging and without 24-hour entertainment. Trust me. Trust your parents. It was not that hard and, in some ways, life was quieter and less packed with distractions. These distractions can take us way off course.

But, for a moment, let’s go back to a time that characterized most of our lives as humans on this planet. Historically, parents could pass on what they knew about the world to their children because the world changed much more slowly than it does now. We remained in our communities from our births through our deaths; we encountered less difference than we do now; we knew less about the larger world; parents could hand down their professions and their crafts to their children and expect that that those skills could last them for a lifetime.

But all this has changed. The Department of Labor reports that the jobs that will be in greatest demand in 2010, next year, didn’t even exist in 2004. They also observe that we are currently preparing students for jobs that don’t yet exist—using technologies that haven’t yet been invented—to address problems—challenges and opportunities that we don’t yet know exist. In a world of such rapid and accelerating change, how are we to find and make our way? How do we find an anchor in this running torrent of transition and dislocation? I believe that values and character and courage must serve as our compass.

My father passed away unexpectedly when I was just fourteen years old. Maybe, some of you have been similarly robbed of an anchor in your life. By that time, he had passed on to me mainly through example his kind and gentle way of encountering the world. All my life I have come back to the lessons that he and my mother and my teachers have blessed me with—caring for the world, wondering if I was doing enough, trying to develop and apply my talents to the work in front of me and most importantly, to find important and meaningful work to do.

I think that is the task ahead of you. Finding important work to do, and having a dream that sustains you. I urge you to embrace a dream that embraces others.

In his address to one quarter of a million people on the Lincoln Mall, delivered more than forty years ago, Reverend Martin Luther King did not deliver The I Have a Complaint Speech. Nor did he deliver the I Have a Suggestion speech. Neither was his speech entitled the Please May I have some of what you have for me and my children? No, as you all know, he presented to the nation and the world his I Have a Dream Speech. A Dream that was momentous and ambitious, a dream that challenges all of us to be judged by the content of our character, a dream that lifts up all of us, no matter where we come from and who we are or what privileges or deprivations characterize our backgrounds.

What does it mean to be judged by the content of our character?

To understand this, I would like to propose an analogy. Today, we hear a great deal about our carbon footprint. This is a measure of the impact that we have on the planet. It helps us to understand how we are all connected to each other, to appreciate the burdens of our lifestyles on the planet we all inhabit.

I would like to propose that we also consider developing a Character Footprint—a measure of the impact of our character on the planet. Do we see the world full of problems or full of opportunity? Do we see the world as one of diminishing chances or a world where the opportunities to make a positive change have never been greater nor more important? Do we believe we have a responsibility to make the world a better place or we are content to assume that this work is someone else’s job? Do we clearly understand and appreciate the impact we are having on the world? On those who come from communities that seem remote from us but whose lives are intriguingly connected to our own? And on those whose generations will follow ours?

At every turn, we need to remember that we are part of a long march of history. We are here because our parents, and their parents, and social reformers, and soldiers have paved the way.   Our responsibility then becomes to bring others along, people like us, and those not so like us but just as deserving.

In closing, I would like to leave you with two quotations. The first is from Adlai Stevenson whom you may not know; the second from Nelson Mandela, a hero to many of you. Speaking at a college commencement, Stevenson said the following.

The privilege and the penalty of your education and the position you hold in your community is that over the coming decades, as in the past, you will be the pacesetters for political and social thought in your community. You may not accept this responsibility but it makes no difference, it is inescapable. If you decide to set no pace, to forward no dreams, and to have no vision, you will still be the pace setters. You will simply have decided there is no pace.

 Mandela’s advice is more personal but no less important.

There is no passion to be found playing small, in settling for a life that is less than the one you are capable of living.

 Thank you for your kind attention and now on to the most important part of our event, the reason we are gathered here tonight–to recognize our students!

Delivered at the Senior Awards Banquet organized by the Intercultural Center at Bryant University, April 4, 2009.

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Dodging silver and other bullets

Today, I nearly walked into the path of a car that was entering traffic from a parking lot. The driver was edging into the road and had carefully scoped out his exit. I am certain that he had looked up the street and down. I was the surprise—a blind spot—in his field of vision. He was moving south; I was headed east. One half-second earlier and I would have gone sailing over the hood. I am a small woman, somewhat fit and maybe athletic. I saw myself arcing in a gymnastic tumble, except, unlike those tiny bouncy teenagers who would land on their tiptoes, I imagine that my head would have hit the pavement first, a non-sanctioned Olympic move called The Double Concussion Flip and Fall. Moby’s Wait for Me was playing in my earphones and I was over-dressed on this sixty degree spring day.

To break my fall, I stretched out my hands. This failed and my chest hit the hood of the car; my head whiplashed back. I tried to resettle myself: What was I doing before I slammed onto the hood of this car? Where were my thoughts?

The driver waved his hands in apology; I waved back. It was like a silent movie. All gestures, no talk. I wanted to dance a bit, maybe skip in front of the car as I left the scene, just like Charlie Champlin would have. It was a magic moment. A minute before we had been invisible to each other; now we separate with a little memory, a shared story, and maybe a wee lesson, depending on our temperaments.

This encounter put my mind on the path of other near misses—a series of events that could have led to some serious trouble. I have sped through a stop sign late at night, distracted and tired. I have twice driven the wrong way down a busy street at twilight.. Earlier in that day, I would have without doubt faced a series of quickly moving cars, zooming up the hill. I would have been like a little cat facing the running of the bulls. We could all have been seriously hurt.

I have been in cars that have spun out, flipping on their heads in slick Alabama clay. I have been held up in Texas on a little walk in the good part of town. The man who did this looked upset enough to hurt me. I have dodged so many medical scares, that I am pretty certain that my health insurance company thinks that I messing with their premium calculation algorithm. I have had so many tests and been diagnosed with so many wrongly accused major illnesses,there must be a office pool somewhere betting on my demise. I could go on and on here but it seems with every incident I recount here, I am feeling both dizzier and bolder. With so much good fortune, a karmic calculation would have me dead pretty soon. As they say, I may be running out of good luck. Or maybe in that cosmic computation, or my good fortune comes at the costs of another’s unearned bad turn of chance.

Which gets me into the meat of what is really on my mind. Earned and unearned good fortune. the movie Funny Girl when Fanny Brice finds early renown, she says to her lover and supporter that she can’t be famous yet because she hasn’t suffered enough. I understand this feeling. It is that sentiment that much of what we have is unearned. I have unearned good health, undeserved energy, unnatural optimism. I don’t know if others feel this way about the gifts they have. I think we mainly focus on what’s missing.

It seems to me that most of us have experienced good fortune we have neither earned nor merited and of course, the reverse is true. The Just World hypothesis suggests just the opposite, that what we get is what we have earned. People are rich for good reasons, not trumped up excuses. People suffer in poverty because of bad choices. When we think about who is rich and who is poor, who enjoys good health and who falls to early disease, we frequently resort to this idea. We typically see great justice in the way of the world. It is comforting and somewhat cruel to believe that we get what we deserve. This is especially true if we believe in the power of individuals more than we do that of systems and structures. If we believe that through individual pluck and drive that the poorest child who has gone through worst schools can make it to Harvard and lead the world, we tend to be judgmental when they don’t. If we cannot see the advantage that birth and family and neighborhood bring to us, we probably believe that we are playing on a level playing field.

Twentieth century philosopher, John Rawls, suggested that in considering systems of justice, we imagine that we don’t know where in a social system we may stand. When we are making rules for running the world, we should evaluate them outside of our own interests. We should create systems that don’t favor or disfavor individuals because of race, gender, social class, national origin, cultural differences and so so. If a thought experiment like this were possible and if it could influence social policy, we would have be to convinced that we actually could stand in someone else’s shoes and represent their position fairly and respectfully. Hale doubts this can be done because of what he calls the veil of opulence—the blindness that we all have to the privileges of birth and position. We fall victim to the comfort of believing that if we fell on hard times, we would work our way out of it. The veil of opulence works like the Just World Hypothesis. It creates that delusional narrative that we are self-made, deserving human beings whose unearned good fortune insulates from caring more deeply from others who we see as not as worthy or deserving of what we have. Lots of us dodge bullets thinking we are lucky and blessed; not imaging that the cards are stacked in our favor.

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