Embracing Puerto Rico

It wasn’t exactly a slow news week.

Covid-19, a.k.a the novel coronavirus, was declared a global pandemic by the World Health Organization.

The President of the United States declared a national emergency. As he described his proclamation, those were “two very big words.”

The stock market crashed.

The NCAA canceled March Madness.

The NBA and NHL suspended their seasons.

MLB postponed Opening Day of the 2020 season.

Disney closed all its theme parks.

Travel between the United States and most of Europe was announced to be suspended.

Schools began closing and attempting to move course instruction online. Thousands of classroom teachers who had never heard of Zoom quickly discovered modern videoconferencing.

Other than 9-11, I can’t remember a week like that.

Meanwhile, I had arrived the previous weekend with a team of volunteers in San Juan, Puerto Rico. We had committed to a service trip there more than six months ago partly to help with the aftermath of Hurricane Maria, but also to begin a wide-ranging relationship between our university alma mater and our clearly underserved fellow American citizens about 1150 miles southeast of Florida.

While we were getting media snippets of the chaos on the mainland, we found ourselves highly engaged in a set of more basic, everyday challenges faced by the people of Puerto Rico.

We learned about the historic struggles of Puerto Rico, approximately 400 years under Spanish authority and just over 100 years under American governance.

We learned about the deeply personal, unique, and diverse culture of Puerto Rico in music, dance, mural art, proper apparel, naming public buildings, storytelling, legends, heroes, and political argument.

We learned that there seems to be an infinite number of delightful ways to combine rice and beans, in much the same way many on the mainland think of pizza or burgers. Puerto Rican cuisine, particularly Mofongo, is a source of creativity, pleasure, and national pride. Locally grown artisan coffee is exquisite. Although sugar cane is no longer harvested in Puerto Rico, the Commonwealth is the largest producer of rum in the world.

We learned through our host partner, Instituto Nueva Escuela (INE), how Montessori education is making a seminal change in the efficacy of Puerto Rico’s public school system. Understanding the social and emotional needs of children brings compassion into the classroom as a working platform organically linked to lesson planning.

We learned that the resources of our nation are spread unequally, but we can help to fix that in small ways by offering to redirect our attention to those in need.

We learned once again that before you can help anyone, you have to learn to listen closely to what they are saying. When it’s in a language other than your own, you have to listen even more closely.

We learned there really is a way of speaking called Spanglish, and that the idioms of an island landscape sharing Spanish and English languages are charming and fun to learn.

We learned the tact necessary to be a part of an adjacent community, the humility necessary to offer to teach new skills, and the camaraderie of sharing a purpose with like-minded volunteers absent an agenda other than to be helpful.

We learned that our love is always needed everywhere we are willing to share it.

This was my third trip with the Yale Alumni Service Corps, a collection of individuals who pledge time each year to enter the everyday lives of friends around the world we otherwise would never meet.

Our visit to San Juan focused on elementary and middle school education, public health, athletic sportsmanship, and construction projects to improve the local school infrastructure. My own prior experience in these programs centered on coaching small-business entrepreneurs, but this time I was assigned to a team dedicated to teaching newsletter writing skills to help information move more easily into and out of the classroom.

When you start the week explaining what a newsletter is and end the week with six classrooms each producing twenty beautiful newsletters, you get a sense of what kind of impact a single week can actually deliver.

When you see a playground without shelter from the sun on one weekend and a team-built canopy bringing comforting shade to that same playground the following weekend, you know the week’s work was well applied.

When a chorus of joyful children surrounds you singing their favorite songs and dancing a set of newly learned steps, you have a sense that the time you spent together might give them hope to continue their studies after you depart.

Puerto Rico was certainly hit hard by Maria, but that’s only part of the story. The main island of Puerto Rico is approximately 110 miles long, 35 miles wide, and home to more than three million people. These individuals are U.S. citizens, yet they have no vote in federal elections, notably the presidency. Although they elect their governor by popular vote, they have but one non-voting member of Congress.

While Puerto Ricans pay no federal income tax, they pay FICA and progressive local taxes. They work as hard as any Americans I know, believe in democracy as much as any Americans I know, serve in uniform and are deployed when called to war—and yet their voices in times of need are severely limited.

Puerto Rico endured a severe downturn in its economy tied to a loss of jobs in the pharmaceutical industry with a change in American tax policy. Just as it was making progress recovering from Hurricane Maria, it was hit by a devastating earthquake. In order to rebuild fallen structures that may not have met code restrictions over the past 50 years, clear title is required to receive FEMA or bank financing, yet there are few resources available to Puerto Ricans to secure title to property where families often have lived for generations.

When Puerto Rico needs help from its parent nation, where is the voice it deserves?

Think of it this way: If Puerto Rico were a U.S. state instead of a territory, it would have two senators and perhaps as many as six voting members in the House of Representatives. This isn’t an insignificant segment of our population. This is a vital, energized, eloquent citizenry in need of the attention our current laws are not offering them.

Will Puerto Rico someday be a state that enjoys all the benefits of representation so many of us do? Who knows?

In the coming decades while that is decided, I invite you when the opportunity allows to visit this gorgeous, magnificent, enchanted Caribbean gem and offer the gifts of your talent or treasure to speed its recovery. These are our fellow American citizens, and they welcome our friendship as much as our love. You will be embraced!

When we serve others, we fuel the spirit of our own souls. When you’re dancing the bomba in the warm tropical breeze, you might get a sense of how glorious outreach can be.

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Photo by the author on location with YASC.

The Study of Philosophy

With all of the ways one could spend four years in college, why would anyone study philosophy?

It’s impractical.

It’s largely self-serving.

Given the vast syllabus of reading necessary to be even modestly well versed in both Eastern and Western thought, there is terribly little material one can cover in such a short amount of time.

It makes no sense to absorb oneself in such an esoteric endeavor with such thin coverage and so little quantifiable value.

It’s an expensive way to squander time, and even harder to explain to those helping pay for it.

Yet I did it, albeit about three and a half decades ago. Truth be told, I still spend unreasonable amounts of time delving into such curious texts as Kierkegaard’s Either/Or and Sartre’s Being and Nothingness.

Why?

Why Then and Why Now are two different things. Let me try to begin with a justification, and then tell you how it has helped me to be better in business, better in service, better in life.

Philosophy is mostly about reading literature, but not the fun stuff. It’s mostly non-fiction, and it’s mostly argued opinion, if not conjecture. There is some history and an occasional parable, but mostly it’s very dense expository in translation. Occasionally you get to drill into something quirky and theatrical like Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, but that’s a tangent, not core curriculum. I mostly focused on the Western canon, so that means works originally composed in Latin, Greek, German, French, and Russian. The translations are often as head-scratching as the source texts.

From the middle ages to the Renaissance in Western philosophy, there is little differentiation between theology and philosophy, so if you don’t want to read about God, this is probably not going to be your thing. You can reject faith later as is often the tradition in modern existentialism, but you have to read a lot about it to reject it comprehensively. Faith is a subject of mainstream devotion and much conflict in our culture. It’s worth learning about it, regardless of what you choose to believe.

The tension in philosophy between quantifying the physical world and attempting to explain metaphysics is persistent and unresolved. Logical argument as a discipline embraces mathematics until calculations outreach contemporary science, forcing abstraction onto problems that later generations will solve. Laws, ethics, psychological motivations, justification for conflict and its resolution, and even aesthetic judgment all prove evolutionary. What is certainty at one time is speculation in another.

Rejection, revision, and reform are the guiding constants of substantial ideas. It’s all quite messy, contradictory, and exhausting.

Philosophy for me as a young person became a passion of personal growth, self-realization, and academic inspiration. It was helpful to me that it was mostly non-emotional because I was also a student of the arts, which were emotional. I needed the balance. I needed the complementary discipline. I needed to be satisfied that hard questions were worth attempting to answer, even if those who answered them began by rejecting the last person who tried to reject them. Somehow that all seemed progressive and appealing to me.

I also managed to convince myself that the power of logic was broadly applicable in almost any field of inquiry. At the very least I would find the structure of articulating an idea useful in dramatic storytelling. While it might not have seemed obvious or even apparent to me how that could be put to use in purchasing food for consumption, I had faith I would figure it out at some point.

Ah, faith—it surfaces in the least likely of circumstances.

There was also this quintessential challenge from Socrates in Plato’s Apology:

“The unexamined life is not worth living.

Those words messed me up because I took them seriously. I even wrote and directed a short film in college specifically about the reincarnation of Socrates in modern times to make this point. It was called Apology. It was supposed to be funny. It wasn’t, but the dialogues of Plato became so ingrained in my consciousness that I had to give it a try.

Failure came early and often after that, but with much clearer reason.

That was Why Then. Let’s cut to Why Now. Yes, there actually is a timeliness to all this.

Our next presidential election is on the horizon. A lot of awful stuff has happened since our last presidential election. I’m upset. I’m more than upset. I’m baffled, befuddled, and out of sorts. Our nation may never heal. I doubt we will get over these scars in my lifetime.

Philosophy remains my comfort zone. It’s a place I go to make sense of things that do not, will not, and perhaps cannot make sense. I wrestle with this all the time. It does not immobilize me. I get things done. To my surprise, I have indeed learned how to apply logical argument to my work. I use it in storytelling and even find ways to wind ponderous floating into the plots of my novels. I also use logic to make arguments in business—in sales, in legal, in coaching. That’s become a byproduct of philosophical usefulness. The core practice is now about coming to terms with the absurd.

I’ve heard all the rhetoric about how our president got elected, about somehow appealing to a forgotten middle class. He has never acknowledged income inequality as one of the defining issues of our generation, never displayed any evidence of empathy or humility, yet he declared himself the champion of hard-working people authentically in need of a break. Those voters may have been duped, but he is an absurdity, as is their loyalty. Our embrace of ignorance and authoritarian mindlessness is absurdity. I use philosophy to live with the absurdity. As long as I am wrestling with difficult ideas, I am convinced the wrestling matters.

Where there are ideas, someday there will be solutions.

The unexamined life is not worth living.

Why are we here? Why is there consciousness?

To do this hard work.

To self-define in the name of combating the absurd.

To commit authentically to making that which is bad better.

Might there be such a thing as Applied Idealism? It’s a counterintuitive notion, difficult to contemplate certification, but spiritually tempting. Samantha Power grapples nobly with reaching for a more attainable abstract in her new book, The Education of an Idealist. It’s comforting to know we are not alone in our outlandish aspirations.

When I envision structures of evaluation, I often discover that the separation of thought and action is at best temporary, if not arbitrary. Logic does not exist outside a problem; it is embedded in the problem. Ethics aren’t distinct from rules and laws; they are expressed in the adoption of rules and laws. Pragmatism does not have to be isolated from hope. When I contemplate a model of assessment and apply it rigorously, I can be held in check by obstruction, but I can’t long be fooled.

As long as I can study, I can stay a fighter. As long as I can delve into the abstract, I will always have more stories to share with you. Once in a while I may even get you to chuckle. That’s when I know your mind is opening and perhaps ready to absorb something new.

In the end, is the study of philosophy a tragic waste of time? I guess for many that might be a fair conclusion. I’ll never see it that way. I see it as vital. I see it as necessary.

Stay tuned to this channel. There’s a lot more philosophy ahead. Considered yourself warned. Or alerted. Or ignited. Ideas are always free. What we do with them is seldom without cost.

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Image: Pixabay

A Gathering of Nothingburgers


Shortly before my latest college reunion, one of my classmates wrote on our class Facebook page that she partially dreaded attending the milestone gathering out of fear it might cause her to feel she was somehow a nothingburger.

Imagine that! Anyone else feel this way? Perhaps a truer question might be: Who hasn’t compared themselves to others and come up short? The real question is why at our age would it matter at all.

Were I to enunciate the personal and career accomplishments of this particular individual, I can assure you of all the descriptors I might be able to call upon to describe her, the term nothingburger would miss the target by at least a solar orbit.

Yet that doesn’t matter. She felt it, and following her enunciation, several dozen others shared the same sentiments. When I tell you these are highly accomplished people, I am not strictly speaking to their landmark achievements. I am speaking to their voices. I am speaking to their self-reflection. I am speaking to their commitment to family, friends, and strangers. I am speaking to their character.

Someone on that Facebook thread also suggested that most of the truly important and successful people in our class don’t bother to come to our reunions. I guess that would put us into a debate of what constitutes importance and success. For me, this argument would quickly devolve into the equivalent of a left-leaning politico trying to convince a right-wing politico of their unfounded opinions, and vice versa.

I don’t want to debate the definitions of importance or success, nor do I wish to admit by virtue of traveling to see some of the most interesting people ever to grace my life that I am somehow in a lower echelon of life progress. Let’s just say I am convinced that plenty of the most important and successful people in our class attended our reunion, and the ones who couldn’t make it or missed out will have an easy opportunity to correct this choice in slightly less than five years.

So what exactly happened at this gathering of nothingburgers? There isn’t time or space in a single blog post to recap the full play-by-play of events, but let me illustrate a few items that might cause you to rethink your own attendance at a reunion the next time you are invited.

First, we remembered with great affection those who graduated with us who no longer share the planet. Somehow that In Memoriam list has a bad habit of growing every five years. Once you pass a half-century in age, the curve seems to take on nasty exponential acceleration. To celebrate the lives of those no longer with us is to restate our love and admiration of their camaraderie. We did this with healthy respect and healthier zeal.

Second, in a closed-door session, a number of individuals stood up and shared some of the debilitating curve balls that hit them in life when they least expected it. We heard authentic stories of job loss, wrenching divorce, health ailments, children suffering serious medical concerns, regretful addictions, business betrayal, conflicted patriotism, losing one’s parents, self-doubt, lost dreams, and spiritual abandonment. The people who spoke were mirrors for those who didn’t. These otherwise private themes dominated sidebar dialogue for days and continue to do so now on social media. We listened with healthy learning and healthier comfort.

Third, we ate, we danced, we sang, and we talked. We did all of those in abundance. Okay, some people even drank, can you believe it? Mostly we just shared. Remember how much real conversation meant to you in the years shortly after adolescence? Remember how much pure ideas meant before mortgages, car payments, IRAs, and tax returns (unlike an endless conversation, those obligations all have to be handled on time, you know?). We did this with healthy appetites and healthier vigor—except for the dancing, only a few of us can still pull that off fluidly, though there were no penalties for trying.

Why might the people around us feel they are nothingburgers when they are nothing of the sort? I have two possible answers to offer, one awful and one remarkable. To the awful, people often feel they are inferior when they are belittled by others, to their faces or in abysmal gossip. To bypass this ramp, be neither actor nor audience. To the remarkable, humility and insecurity are often two sides of a coin. No matter how a reflective individual might care to value his or her life summary, seldom will a summary be satisfying. To bypass this ramp, we learn to accept who we are with the simple caveat that improvement is always within our grasp.

I also heard many people talking about whether they felt at home at college, either at the age of 18 or now. My answer coincidentally is the same way I respond about feeling at home in Los Angeles: not all of it, and not all the time. I find pockets of warm association, and that is usually enough for me to accept the whole, both with my flaws and the flaws of the whole. It sort of works for college as well.

I’ve discovered again that a school reunion doesn’t have to be about nostalgia. It can be about reconnecting. Where reconnection might be in short supply, it can be about meeting someone for the first time where fate and circumstance might have precluded an introduction in any of the previous several decades. It can also be a reminder of the simple things that reinvigorate our spirits: heartfelt dialogue, hard-won empathy, and genuine encouragement that the future doesn’t have to be the past.

Sometimes I think the creation of memories is a mystical algorithm all its own. Every memory has a starting point. It can begin 35 years ago or it can begin now. Both are valid. Neither makes you a nothingburger.

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Image: Pixabay

Saving Our Language in the New Year

New Year’s Resolution #1: 

Stop beginning any spoken sentence with Candidly, Honestly, Quite Frankly, Truthfully, or To Tell You The Truth. Stagnant qualifiers pollute our language. If these preambles aren’t implicit, don’t speak.

I posted that mandate to myself on Facebook and Twitter in the final week of 2018. As much as I try to be vigilant about avoiding these sorts of speech patterns, I have fallen prey on too many occasions of late in allowing these bogus exclamations to slip into my vocabulary.

Without making any excuses, I will say it’s only natural to begin parroting the vernacular of the day. Over the past two years our airwaves have been filled unnaturally with overuse of such useless and cynical interjections. I don’t need to remind you of the bellowing source. You hear it as much as I do. You are inevitably aware of its repetitious origin. When bombastic authority misfires repeatedly, it becomes human nature to echo the poor refrain.

Curiously, my warning to myself was not only met with endorsement and cheer, but with further suggestions to all who share a love of our language. It seems that banal misuses and abuses of our language only begin with my singular new year’s resolution. I guess there are many of us who would like to speak more eloquently or less sloppily as we advance together in history.

Below I excerpt some of the comments shared on social media in response to my resolution, without specific name attribution to protect the privacy of the wise circle offering recommendations. Perhaps some of these will ring true as this post circulates and the collection will pick up further steam and participation. I believe as long as we are working against social devolution, there is hope yet our beloved language can endure erosion and deterioration that might otherwise undermine substance and meaning.

Here are some of those shared comments and suggestions:

Add to the list: “So…” I hate when people start a sentence that way.

Beginning a statement with “honestly” also conveys that it’s different from your other statements — which must be lies.

I’d add “believe me” as a sentential ending.

When I was a young lawyer — many, many years ago — I was told that when a witness started his/her answer with something like “to be honest with you…” he/she was about to lie.

Actually, in my opinion (humble or otherwise)…

Stop prefacing earnest speechifying with “Let’s be clear” or some variation thereof.

Stop ending letters and emails with “sincerely.” And why do we still start letters with “Dear…?” Come on, few people in this day and age deserve such acknowledgement, yet we use it for letters sent to strangers and corporations. Save it for friends and loved ones.

For God’s sake, don’t use “for God’s sake.” I doubt He/She cares.

“With all due respect” is a lead in that often means “I don’t respect your opinion at all, you moron.” And why do some people preface their own opinion with “some people feel that…?” Are they too afraid to own their opinion?

I’d like never again to hear “with all due respect.” It implies no respect is actually due.

Unless you started a statement with a joke, don’t begin a new statement with “In all seriousness…” And never state that “It’s common knowledge that…” Too many people use that to give support for their own narrow opinion.

Don’t say “literally.” Ugh.

And “respectfully.”

Don’t end a statement with a question, such as “…isn’t it?”

Don’t forget “needless to say,” the most pointless one of all. I’m trying to get rid of “Know that…” in my emails. When you’re done with this mission, tackle adjectives in general.

I once asked a question of some guest speaker at a very large public meeting starting a sentence with “surely.” He responded that he distrusts any question beginning that way because it sounds as if I had already made up my mind! My friends who were there quoted the line from Airplane: “Don’t call me Shirley.”

So, there you have it, literally some easy fixes for the new year. Honestly, we can’t fix the entire world, but quite frankly, any healing in our broken communication is worth the effort. With all due respect, it’s worth a try, isn’t it?

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Image: Pixabay