Saturday, February 28, 2009

The Lonely American

"Knowing, in a deep-down sense, where you are from contributes not only to your sense of identity but to your sense of community." ~Vance Packard, A Nation of Strangers

Last night I picked up the current Utne to read an article called "The Lonely American." The article begins with some grave statistics, cited for you here:

Two recent studies suggest that our society is in the midst of a dramatic and progressive slide toward disconnection. In the first, using data from the General Social Survey (GSS), Duke University researchers found that between 1985 and 2004 the number of people with whom the average American discussed “important matters” dropped from three to two. Even more stunning, the number of people who said there was no one with whom they discussed important matters tripled: In 2004 individuals without a single confidant made up a quarter of those surveyed. Our country is now filled with them.

The second study was the 2000 U.S. census. One of the most remarkable facts to emerge from this census is that one of four households consists of one person only. The number of one-person households has been increasing steadily since 1940, when they accounted for roughly 7 percent of households. Today, there are more people living alone than at any point in U.S. history. Placing the census data and the GSS side by side, the evidence that this country is in the midst of a major social change is overwhelming.

The article is excerpted from the book of the same name by Jacqueline Olds and Richard S. Schwartz, whose aim appears to be to show how the American lifestyle leads to social isolation.

They note that socializing is not the priority it ought to be in our culture. They cite the frenetic pace of life driven by materialistic pursuits as part of the problem. They also note that social isolation is damaging to both health and ecology, though I didn't make the full connection on this last assertion.

What I found absent in the article, and hope it is not deliberately ignored in the book, was any reference to the groundbreaking work by Vance Packard on this topic, A Nation of Strangers.

Olds and Schwartz may be correctly sounding alarm bells regarding isolation, but what they're seeing is the fruit of what Packard cited more than forty years ago. In his 1962 analysis, "Personal isolation is becoming a major social fact of our time. A great many people are disturbed by the feeling that they are rootless or increasingly anonymous, that they are living in a continually changing environment where there is little sense of community."

Before citing more from Packard, though, it could be that this is simply the fruit of acidity of modernity. Existential philosophers like Camus and Sartre observed this "alienation and despair" as an isolating phenomenon which for many is the human condition in our Western world. The problem with the "existential hero" is that he can't connect, and thus claims it noble to stand alone.

The reality is that we weren't created to stand alone. Families, communities, tribes, clans, associations, friends... we need them because life is hard. And we're not gods, we're mortals who have a lot of hard things to deal with from time to time.

One of the things I remember most vividly from Packard's book was that people are more mobile in our modern (Fifties/Sixties, USA) society than ever before. With the free-wheeling lifestyle glorified in books like Kerouac's On the Road, young people left their stifling rural communities in droves and went to the big city where the lights are bright on Brodadway. The critically acclaimed Midnight Cowboy (Jon Voigt, Dustin Hoffman) portrayed one pair of lost souls in this exodus. And the theme song by Nillson says it all, "Everybody's talkin' at me, I don't hear a word their saying." Seeker Joe Buck finds himself alone in a big world, and it's a hard world.

But Packard cited other causes for this rootlessness, much of it work related. In the course of my life I've been aware too that military kids and preachers' kids are often the victims of mobile lifestyles that make it challenging to develop connections. It's almost a byword now to say, rather flippantly, you have to go where the jobs are.

For more on Packard, and an interesting application of Packard's observations to the Red States / Blue States divide, check out this perspective by the Brothers Judd.

Friday, February 27, 2009

A Whiter Shade of Pale

Ok, admit it. You loved the song, have always loved the song, but have never been entirely sure what it was all about.

That’s how it has been for me to some extent. Right from the start when it first aired in the Summer of Love it had a gripping, seductive quality. The chord progressions mesmerized as did the lyrics, strangely abstract yet vivid enough to play with your imagination. It seemed like there was something there but you just couldn’t get your hands on it. At least that’s how it was for me. Whether the lyrics or the evocative music, in England when Sgt. Pepper was the number one album, this was the number one single.

Twenty years later I still played the 45 once in a while. (I think it’s still inside my Wheels of Fire album by Cream.) And to this day as an amateur pianist I can’t help but run through those chords now and then, just letting the sweet sounds saturate the room.

But those lyrics… Unraveling the poetic unto total transparency is not always necessary. Appreciating a turn of phrase, and accepting the ambiguities, this is what gives a poem or a song like this one, and many of Dylan’s, it’s longevity. The mind can play with it endlessly, like an impossible labyrinth or Borges’ Library of Babel, and you never figure it out. But each time it leaves you with something to take away, a moment of delight and self-forgetfulness.

It's the opening line of the second verse that really used to get me. "She said there is no reason, and the truth is plain to see..." Which truth? The truth that there is no reason? Or the ultimate truth that caused her face to turn a whiter shade of pale?

The playing cards speak to me of the old "know when to hold 'em, know when to fold 'em" type of thing, though Kenny Rogers didn't do The Gambler till a few years later. Dylan, too, refers to having to play the cards your dealt in Series of Dreams. And the last couplet in that stanza "Although my eyes were open, they might just as well've been closed" it speaks of an interiority of transcendence, the contrariness of Truth with a capital T, and seeing the light. Which I did, but did not. Or, of blindness in spite of light.

Here then are the lyrics. Frivolity and fear, clarity and obfuscation, vividness and ambiguity all rolled into one. Afterwards I've given you a link to a page with much more insight about this song than I would have mustered on my own. Before you head there be sure to watch the YouTube vid below featuring Gary Brooker, who co-wrote this, accompanied by Peter Frampton on guitar and Ringo Starr on drums.

A Whiter Shade of Pale

We skipped the light fandango,
Turned cartwheels 'cross the floor.
I was feeling kind of seasick,
But the crowd called out for more.
The room was humming harder,
As the ceiling flew away.
When we called out for another drink,
The waiter brought a tray.

And so it was that later,
As the miller told his tale,
That her face at first just ghostly,
Turned a whiter shade of pale.

She said there is no reason,
And the truth is plain to see
But I wandered through my playing cards,
And would not let her be
One of sixteen vestal virgins
Who were leaving for the coast.
And although my eyes were open,
They might just as well've been closed.

And so it was later,
As the miller told his tale,
That her face at first just ghostly,
Turned a whiter shade of pale.

For more background about White Shade, check this site out. Listen first to the music, however. Let it take you away.


Thursday, February 26, 2009

In Defense of Lincoln

“The key to understanding Lincoln's philosophy of statesmanship is that he always sought the meeting point between what was right in theory and what could be achieved in practice.” ~Dinesh D’Souza

When the news broke it was really quite a surprise. This month Duke Ellington became the first black ever minted on U.S. currency. What surprised me is that I’d never noticed the absence before. In January we inaugurated our first black president, which escaped no one’s notice. With Ellington’s image now imprinted on a quarter, one wonders what we'll see in March.

What I found especially interesting is that when I Googled it, the story was in British, Netherlands, and a host of other European news feeds. I didn’t realize this was an event of such global significance. But it’s a good move and probably overdue.

I doubt there’s any relationship but it did make me think once more of how this is the month of Abe Lincoln’s birthday bicentennial. He of the five dollar bill fame would also probably be saying, “It’s about time.” If he’d lived another hundred years I wonder what he’d have thought of the birth of jazz. It doesn’t take much for me to picture the tall lanky Lincoln tapping his foot to the rhythm of a big band.

Lincoln’s importance was never questioned when I was a kid growing up in the fifties and sixties, but like everyone else who ever achieved anything, the detractors will have their day. Throughout my life I have in my readings run across Lincoln anecdotes that helped define him as a wise, sensitive leader who was driven more by conviction than ambition. His wise words and carefully considered actions have provided inspiration for millions. And he never flinched from making known where he stood on the slavery issue.

As he built his cabinet, President Obama let it be known that he was in league with the pro-Lincoln camp. At least this was the image he sought to project by carrying around the latest Lincoln bestseller Team of Rivals. To be pro-Lincoln is not only a pro-black position, it is pro-humanity. The book touts the genius of Lincoln in selecting a cabinet comprised of men more likely to get into a barroom brawl than run the ship of state, but as history has shown, the backwoodsman from Illinois achieved his aims thereby.

In keeping with this Lincoln theme, I commend to you an insight-filled article by Dinesh D’Souza. D’Souza is a deep well of experience and knowledge, and his observations on our times cannot be easily dismissed. Here in this article, which appeared in the April 2005 issue of American History Magazine, he defends Lincoln against his critics. Be sure to read Lincoln: Tyrant, Hypocrite or Consummate Statesman?

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Getting in Focus: Five Minutes with Jeff Frey

"Photography is more than a medium for factual communication of ideas. It is a creative act." ~Ansel Adams

I met Jeff Frey in 1987. My success in setting up an advertising program at AMSOIL that year caught the attention of a marketing VP for The Chromaline Corporation, a small manufacturing firm here in the screen printing industry. I was hired to become their in-house ad agency.

Chromaline had gone through four ad agencies in less than three years and, among other problems, their literature lacked continuity at the time. I set about to review and analyze their sales and product lit. After having been at AMSOIL, where standards were extremely high, it seemed the Chromaline lit (at this time) was shoddy at best. The product photos on these printed pieces looked especially bad and washed out, so I decided to switch the company to another pro photographer in town who I thought did decent work. First, however, I had to find the original photos that were used in the literature. Chromaline made photostencil films and emulsions in an industry where imaging is important.

Then it happened. I still remember the moment. I saw a black and white glossy, so crisp and rich it was literally eye-popping. The subject matter: a gallon container of photostencil emulsion. I knew then that the problem lay not with the photographer. I found it stunning that a boring, black container could look so dynamic.

Jeff's work has always been nothing short of astonishing. He does true magic with a camera. There are no shortcuts. His equipment is always state-of-the-art, and the outcomes always worth the effort.

Like myself, Jeff is also a New Jersey transplant to the Midwest. But high standards are what brought us together. This past week we talked about the photography business.

Ennyman: How did you get into photography as a profession?
JF: It was a hobby. Then I worked at a camera store here in Duluth, got friendly with an established commercial photographer and partnered up with him. I had pursued the hobby seriously when I was working in the camera store.

Ennyman: What have you enjoyed most about the photography business?
JF: The sales tax reports. (laughs) Writing the check to the department of revenue.
Besides that, my favorite thing to shoot is people at their jobs, because I allow them to participate in the building of the image. They tell me what is important, what they do, how they manipulate what they do. It’s a collaborative effort where the subject is helping to create the image.

Now, with digital, when I shoot to a computer, it’s very easy to get feedback and work together.

Ennyman: What are the two or three biggest mistakes that amateur photographers make?
JF: Thinking they can make money at it. (laughs)
An artist is not necessarily an entrepreneur. Just because you can satisfy customers with nice pictures does not mean you can have a successful business.

Ennyman: What about lighting… how important is that with digital?
JF: It’s every bit as important as it ever used to be. But you don’t need as much now.

You’re way better off making it right from the start. Basically I weigh situation. After I understand that aesthetically it can happen one way or the other, I ask where it is going to take less effort. You have to know the limits of Photoshop. When it comes to light on someone’s face, there’s no way I am going to try to fix that later.

Ennyman: Do you have any secrets you’re willing to share that help turn good photos into great photos?
JF: Make sure the eyes are in focus. Also, it always makes a photo more interesting with more depth if you include a complimentary foreground element.

Ennyman: How has the digital age changed professional photography?
JF: Formerly, a Polaroid test was as much immediate feedback as we could get to check lighting, etc. The Polaroid was never the final product. You always had to then shoot the film and hope you get it right on film, like facial expression or catching the peak of a jump with a dancer. The dancers are thrilled because they don’t have to jump forty times to make sure you got it once.

I don’t have to worry about bringing different types of film, different speeds, different color balance film. Now we can white balance in the camera, can change the sensitivity on the fly.

Check out a portion of Jeff's portfolio here

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Get In The Game

On Sunday our pastor preached on this theme, saying that it's time to get in the game. The message resonated with me because it seems like there are simply too many people content to sit in the stands and watch as spectators. Or to sit on their couches or their duffs or whatever... waiting for the next thing to happen, instead of making it happen.

Life is for living.

The message Sunday was about Christians who expect the clergy, pastors and priests to do the work of ministry. But this blog post is intended to prod all of us to get get passionate about making a difference in the world. There are needs all around us. And each of us has different abilities or strengths. It's time to get out of the stands and into the field of play.

Maybe your thing is business. Excel in that and you can employ others whom you train and help get into the career game. There are a lot of talented, smart people who have been hurt by this past year's economic turmoil. If you can make money and employ even a few of these good people you will have made a huge difference.

Maybe you're an artist. By creating and sharing your work you inspire others with creative gifts. Don't quit. Stay in the game. We need art, lest the entire Western world become a sterile white walled environment with no character.

If you're a musician, follow that passion and let others be swept up in the music. Music can help people forget their pain. Music can fill the long voids in a sorrowing heart. Music can inspire action... or reflection. Music can make people laugh and smile. Stay with it. Find new ways to share it. We need your gifts.

Writers, don't despair. There are some who will say it's all been said before. Yes, this may be true, there's "nothing new under the sun" on one level. But on another level, we need your voices, your words, the prismatic revelations of your hearts on paper and/or monitor screens. Nothing new? Every moment in time everything is new, and this world is exploding with newness. New stories being experienced, new stories that need to be told.

Journalists, stay in the game, because the politicians need watchdogs.

And if your calling is to the political arena, don't despair at the ethical contortions and inefficiencies of government. At all levels we need people with good hearts who have the courage to get in the game and stay in the game. Don't give up. You can make a difference....

Desmond Tutu, Martin Luther King, Ronald Reagan, Derek Jeter, Pablo Picasso, Mother Theresa, Jack Nicholson... we know their names because they were not spectators in life. There are millions of others who are lesser known, who are also seriously pursuing their callings or dreams. We do not know their names, but we see the fruit of their passion.

If you're just watching, and drifting... wake up! There's work to be done. Get stirred and make a difference. Get in the game.

Monday, February 23, 2009

The Unfinished Stories (part 3)

SHORT STORY MONDAY

The narrator, writer Joe Urban, has learned of a relatively unknown writer whose work is purportedly incredible. Till now, his own writing has been impotent in part because of a lack of passion for his subject matter. As he learns more about this unknown, it fires him and sets him out on a quest...

Only two people have ever had access to Richard Allen Garston's works. One was his friend Gary Spencer. The second, Garston's brother.

The Unfinished Stories of Richard Allen Garston (3)

I set about to find his brother and it led me to Camden in South Jersey where he had been pastor of an Independent Baptist congregation. Greg Garston had died the year previous. My determination to locate his wife, however, was rewarded. Her name was Emma and we spent a small portion of an afternoon together talking in generalities until I finally came to my point.

"I don't mean to pry, but can we talk a little bit about your husband's brother?"

"Well, he was a writer."

"Anything else?"

"He seemed very sad and dark, like he had secrets."

"What kind of secrets?" I asked.

She seemed unable to answer.

"I was told that your husband became caretaker of Richard's manuscripts after Richard died."

"I don't think so."

"What do you mean, you don't think so.?"

"I mean, Greg did that before Richard died."

"Did what?"

"Was caretaker of Richard's work. I'm using your word. I would have put it differently. We stored a lot of his things at our place. Collected them in our attic. Richard had a small apartment in Somerville. Not a lot of space."

"Did you ever read any of his stories?"

"They were stories? No, Greg made me practically take a vow not to look inside those boxes. One day he decided that he didn't want them in the attic anymore and he had them incinerated."

"And you never opened any of those boxes? Weren't you even just a little bit curious?"

She lightly scratched her chin with the tips of her fingernails.

"Yes," she said. "Yes, I was."

"But you never looked?"

"One should not make a habit of keeping secrets from one's spouses."

"So you did look!"

"Please, I'm sorry."

"Sorry about what? So you opened a box."

"You never know what you'll find when you open boxes. Some boxes are better left unopened."

"What's that supposed to mean?"

"I'm not sure what to say. I'm afraid to tell you the truth."

"Why? What is there to conceal? Your husband isn't going to be angry any more. He's passed away. And Richard Allen Garston has been dead for a dog's age. Who is there left to offend?"

Emma stood up and left the room. I could hear her crying in the other room. Then I heard the sound of drawers opening, interspersed with rummaging. When she returned she was hold a single sheet of yellowed paper with typing on it. In the lower right it had the initials R.A.G. I took it from her as if receiving a sacred host. It was a fragment from a story beginning, ending with these words:

Untitled
A sunday afternoon ramble through the underbrush, nettles and thorns, where ideas lay dormant, nestled in for winter, hibernating against the cold. He had left the path to forge his own way. He wasn't sure what to write about any more. There were so many things he had become unsure about. Now this. He had lost his way.

Here's the reality: he was tired. And indecisive, vascillating between an ideal of what his life ought to be and trying in vain to find a voice that was authentic. All decisions originating from within himself seemed arbitrary, thus incapable of commanding his complete and undivided allegiance. The result: a paralysis of will, an inability to mobilize his powers, to consolidate the resources of his mind, heart, soul, experience, training.

He was wounded, with a wound he knew incurable.

In an upstairs room, sitting in the dilapidated cushioned chair which he had obtained at a flea market for fifty cents, he organized his thoughts and prepared to scratch out the story of his life, a suicide note. --R.A.G.

I was stunned, for this writer, this writer who had lost his way, who had been wounded with an incurable wound, who was once confident but now confused... this writer was me. Inside I trembled, though I concealed it from my hostess.

"Do you have more?" I asked.

She looked as if she were about to break down. Her cheeks were red, eyes averted.

"I'm having trouble putting this all together," I said. "For years your husband stored his brother's manuscipts in his attic. Then one day he decides to burn everything. Did he ever say why?"
"He only said that it was 'God's will' and that he didn't want to talk about it."

"Was this like, say, a week after Richard died?"

She shook her head.

"A month?"

She continued shaking her head.

"A year? Or when?"

When she didn't make any reply there was a long pause in our conversation which, though awkward, gave each of us a few moments to reflect. As I studied her pale grey eyes I could only guess where her thoughts were escorting her. The ticking clock on the mantle seemed to stress that I had overstayed my welcome, nevertheless I did need to ask about one more thing.

"Would you mind if I asked how Richard died?"

"It was terrible. He died in a fire."

"I thought it was a suicide."

"Yes, he set himself on fire in his bed."

"Sounds like an awful way to choose to die. How did they know it wasn't accidental."

"Oh yes, that's exactly what they thought until Greg got the letter."

"So there was a suicide note?"

"It was mailed the morning of the day he died."

"You're sure of that? And you're sure it was his handwriting."

"Definitely. He had a very distincitive way of making his letters, all full and round. His penmanship was like a work of art, like calligraphy. His whole life was that way, actually."

"Do you remember what it said?"

"Something like, 'When you read this I'll be gone.'"

"You sound as if you almost liked him."

She did not reply and I could tell she cared about him very deeply.

"How often did you see him?"

She didn't answer again.
"Do you still have his last letter?"

It seemed a stupid question as soon as I said it. Her husband had burned everything else the guy had written.

The story fragment was lying on the table and I selfishly wanted to ask if I could have it. Instead I pulled two dollars from my wallet and set them on the table. "Can you photocopy this for me?" Then I scribbled my address on a piece of paper. "Mail it to this address."

She nodded, as if this wouldn't be a problem.

"Oh, did you know his friend Gary Spencer?"

"His name was mentioned a few times. A writer friend, I believe."

"I'm trying to find him. Someone said he joined a monastery. You wouldn't have any idea where, would you?"

I left feeling pretty much like I'd come to a dead end and feeling sad in myself for these two brothers. Still, the blue sky and brightness of the sun lifted me up a bit as I returned north to my home. Though my thoughts were strange and all over the place, they continually returned to a single notion: to now find, if it were possible, Gary Spencer.
CONTINUED

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Series of Dreams

I get asked from time to time which is my favorite Dylan song, and I laugh. Not possible to list one. I do, however, have lists of favorites. Favorite acoustic, favorite lyrics, favorites that get most played over the years, favorite live versions, favorites for their significance.... Series of Dreams would make a few lists. It has certainly received plenty of playtime in my life. What impresses me in part is how the music conveys the hauntedness of the lyrics. Both -- music and lyrics -- emerge and merge in surrealistic streams from a nebulous center somewhere in the deep places of Dylan's soul, and connect with my own deep places.

The poetic phrasings are woven throughout with an originality that is completely Dylan. Who else would write a song like this? "I was thinking of a series of dreams..." From this matter of fact opening statement everything flows out. It's a mature Dylan making life observations from a place further down the road.

I, too, relate to this imagery because there is an unreal quality to dreams, and in this instance, to memory and ultimately life. There are times when one is older that our memories and experiences are something akin to a series of dreams made of tissue being disintegrated by time. And like the images in the song we try to grasp their meanings which, like dreams, are uniquely our own and not always understood, if there are meanings at all.

Series of Dreams

I was thinking of a series of dreams
Where nothing comes up to the top
Everything stays down where it's rooted
And comes to a permanent stop

Wasn't thinking of anything specific
Like in a dream, where someone wakes up and screams
Nothing too very scientific
Just thinking of a series of dreams.

Thinking of a series of dreams
Where the time and the tempo drag
And there's no exit in any direction
'Cept the one that you can't see with your eyes

Wasn't making any great connection
Wasn't falling for any intricate schemes
Nothing that would pass inspection
Just thinking of a series of dreams

Dreams where the umbrella is open
And into the path you are hurled
And the cards are no good that you're holding
Unless they're from another world

In one, the surface was frozen
In another, I witnessed a crime
In one, I was running and in another
All I seemed to be doing was climb

Wasn't looking for any special assistance
Nor going to any great extremes
I'd already gone the distance
Just thinking of a series of dreams

Dreams where the umbrella is open
And into the path you are hurled
And the cards are no good that you're holding
Unless they're from other world

I'd already gone the distance
Just thinking of a series of dreams
Just thinking of a series of dreams
Just thinking of a series of dreams

Copyright SPECIAL RIDER MUSIC

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Jon Thralow, Revisited

"Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic." ~Arthur C. Clarke

At the end of January we interviewed Jon Thralow on Internet entrepreneurialism and especially eCommerce. It seemed we'd only scratched the surface so I met with him yesterday at the Red Mug to do a little more probing regarding his work.

Though now primarily doing consulting work, Jon used to manage a team of programmers. As we compared notes from time to time these past few years, I found it interesting to learn that programmers and Internet developers can have temperaments like artists. Those who do the best work may not fit neatly into your standard corporate cubespace. Jon, though a technical wizard and programmer himself, understood this art-heart-spirit of his team. They consequently achieved remarkable things together.

Here, for a few moments, we explored the meaning of Web 2.0, the explosion of web content and at least one solution for dealing with the tsunami of information that is washing across cyberspace.

Ennyman: I have been hearing a lot of numbers thrown around regarding how fast the Internet is growing. What kind of numbers are you seeing and where do these numbers come from?

JT: As for sales growth the Internet is one of the few bright spots for the economy, but the larger growth is happening in content My best guess is that in pure data being uploaded is growing so fast with YouTube, and social media sites that the number of gigabytes online is at least doubling every other year.

Ennyman: The Internet has brought a lot of new terminology into existence. Here are a couple that the average person might be hearing that need clearer definitions. What is “Web 2.0”? What is the “deep web”?

JT: "Web 2.0" refers to a perceived second generation of web development and design that aims to facilitate communication and interoperability on the World Wide Web. Some concepts that have led to this evolution are web-based communities, hosted services, and applications; such as social-networking sites, video-sharing sites, wikis, and blogs. As all of this new content is quickly being added search engines like Google are having a hard time keeping up and indexing this information. The amount of information that Google is able to index is a small fraction of the entire Internet. Everything that is not indexed by search engines is called "deep web".

Ennyman: You have helped develop a number of successful eCommerce companies and are currently consulting in this area. What is it that so turns you on about eCommerce?

JT: I am not really sure. I like science and I like doing things that people tell me not to. When I first went into eCommerce, it was more of a feeling like, “What is this? It is going to go away in a week or two and will it even work if more people get online?” I was just too curious to leave it alone. One of the parts that I liked best was the ability to marry marketing and science. Knowing exactly what each dollar did and how much that dollar turned into…

Ennyman: You are also involved in a company called Mozenda which helps eCommerce companies efficiently gather data from the Internet. Why can’t people just do this with search engines like Google?

JT: Mozenda does much more than help eCommerce companies. We have very large companies using this tool.

For eCommerce, a search engine only returns results on the browser while Mozenda gathers the data you want and puts it into a usable format.

Ennyman: What other kinds of companies are currently using Mozenda’s software platform? How are these companies using the program?

JT: There are many different companies including even a couple of DOW-tracked publicly traded companies, one from retail and one from financial. Financial companies will track buy/sell data to predict future stock prices. The retail company is using it to compare its prices to its competitors. Another financial company is using it to gather data from one section of its organization to mesh it with another. Many PR companies are using the program to watch the reaction to the brand by harvesting data from blogs and forums. Other large companies are using the product to learn about potential recalls in their product line before production has put too many out into the marketplace saving the company millions and increasing the product quality.

Ennyman: Doesn’t it seem a little like opening the door to a Big Brother situation here? Can this kind of data acquisition lead to abuses and does that concern you?

JT: Yes, this sure can lead to abuse. I think the analogy might be that Mozenda makes the guns and they can be used for either good or evil fits here. There have been companies that have been taken to court by stealing data from their competitors, but Mozenda does not advocate this practice. The goal of Mozenda is to make the data on the net much more usable.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Borges and I, Redux

This morning I woke with a pleasant inbox surprise. The following email from a visitor to my website and ultimately my Labyrinth. How sweet these fellow travellers can be when they tumble into our lives.

Hi there,
I don't ordinarily "write" anything that isn't technical and academic, but I spent the last two months reading Borges and it affected me. I found your site/labyrinth and thought I'd share my (very) short piece of prose/verse with you, because I think it's up your alley and I don't know anyone who would actually appreciate it.
If you like it, please let me know and feel free to post it on your site. If you have comments on it, I'd be glad for the feedback. It's a work in progress.
In any event, thanks for just taking a look.
R. J.


I replied:
"A very fine little piece indeed. It really snaps one to attention. Thank you for sharing. And yes, I will share it on my blogspot, recognizing your authorship of course. Can you briefly tell me a little more about yourself? Or should we keep that ambiguous."

He replied thusly....

For public consumption, the forking paths of ambiguity are probably fine... Google will tell anyone that I'm either a physicist, a budding economist, or an 18 yr. old kid w/ a myspace page (or none of the above). The alternative is a short bio, and that really doesn't seem appropriate (as it would be longer than my little contribution ;) )

For you, I'm actually _____ . I study and teach _________ (I have my classes read "Of Exactitude in Science" on day one), and play a lot of chess. I'm glad you enjoyed the writing and thank you for reading. I'd be happy to return the favor some time.
R. J.

Here is the wonderful gem which Mr. Briggs presented to me.

Borges and I, Redux

I know why I am not Borges.

Maybe it’s obvious, but I had to discover it for myself once. Looking at my eyes in the mirror, focusing on the reflection of myself looking in the mirror at the reflection of myself infinitely, going always down and always inward, that’s where I saw him.

Because I saw him in my reflection, I know I am not him.

Because in the moment that the ideal becomes real, it slips out of raw experience into the persistent and necessary imperfection of perception and memory that are all we know.

And the insistent division between them that dances between us, which draws me into writing this and you into reading it, seductively suggests a voice you have not heard that leads you into a labyrinth of swords and knives, gauchos and tigers, mortality and the infinite, the absolute oneness and the constant separation from it, save for the defining moments of life that forever defy description, indelible but usually forgotten, lost forever perhaps because they can exist only in the singular sense of now, outside of what we “know”, beyond the place and time I need to tell you who I think I am not.

But one can never be too sure--better look again.

RJB, 2009


Ennyman's Note: If you wish to read the original Borges and I, here's the place you can check it out. Be sure to follow up with the lustrous Of Exactitude In Science.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Life Is A Gift

About two weeks back I wrote a review here about Jean-Dominique Bauby's The Diving Bell & the Butterfly. Or rather, a review of the film about Jean-Dominique Bauby's story. It was the second time I had seen the film this past several months and as you can see the film made an impact on me. Sometimes art does that. Despite our differences of time and place, differing moments in history or geography and culture, a work of art or a story cuts through to one's heart. Such was this film. So much so that I had to read the book as well because occasionally, during the movie, there are excerpts from the book.

I didn't catch it the first time, didn't realize it was Bauby who was speaking, had written these things. I mean, it was clearly stated but I didn't add it up in my head. This second time, I thirsted for more of this man's prose.

It is beautiful writing, in the true belles-lettres sense of the word, and must be especially so in the original French. The chapters are short, the topics simple. The Wheelchair, Prayer, Bathtime, The Alphabet, The Empress... But each carries a far greater weight because they have been produced one letter at a time by the blinking of an eye. Not in "a blink of an eye" but rather, because every other muscle in his body is frozen except his eyelid, by blinking the left eye he communicates with. Of course this blinking form of communication is simply the final step in the inward development of each pearl, from grains of sand to invaluable jewels, all strung together in this wonderful collection of observations, memories, insights.

This limitation -- communication by eye -- makes telling a joke a bit tedious, yet in the writing you can still see his sense of humor. You see, too, the power of the spirit to rise up in the face of brutal circumstances. His mind is fully awake, and he locked within.

A line from Dylan's Hurricane comes to mind: "put in a prison cell, but one time could have been the champion of the world." Hurricane Carter, who was unjustly imprisoned, was able to appeal his sentence and eventually regained his freedom. For Bauby, such a hope was an impossibility. And yet, through the power of imagination and memory, he did have a certain kind of freedom. Writes Bauby:

"My diving bell becomes less oppressive, and my mind takes flight like a butterfly. There is so much to do. You can wander off in space or in time, set out for Tierra del Fuego or for King Midas' court.

"You can visit the woman you love, slide down beside her and stroke her still sleeping face. You can build castles in Spain, steal the Golden Fleece, discover Atlantis, realize your childhood dreams and adult ambitions."


With these words I leave this thought: Today, cherish what you have. And don't let anyone or anything ever steal your spirit. Life is a precious gift.

And for sure, this book comes highly recommended. You can find it both new and used on Amazon.com...

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Pain and Sorrow

"Yet man is born to trouble as surely as the sparks fly upward." ~ Job 5:7

"Life is difficult." So begins Dr. M. Scott Peck in his searching book The Road Less Traveled.

Peck continues. "This is a great truth, one of the greatest truths." And in a footnote, he points out that it is one of the Four Noble Truths taught by Buddha, who said, "Life is suffering."

According to Peck, accepting this truth results in a form of inner liberation. While we each may experience a unique package of sorrow and troubles, it is a common fate. As the Proverb states, "Even in laughter the heart may be in pain, and joy may end in grief."

Peck's message is that we should not be caught off guard. Life is hard. That is, hard things can happen to us, and unless we are made of stone these things will affect us. It is part of being human. But we can respond to this reality in a variety of ways with ultimately positive ends. Artists turn it into art, musicians into song. For many it is a weight that humbles us into self-forgetfulness and leads us into a place of greater awareness of others' pain, isolation, despair.
These are not things that happen overnight. Grief must do its work.

A number of songs came to mind today. "Tears in Heaven" by Eric Clapton was among the first, written when he lost his four-year-old son in a tragic accident. "Fire and Rain" was a similar heartfelt song through which James Taylor bared his soul when I was a young college student.

Blackbird, from the Beatles' White Album, speaks to me from this haunted place as well.

Blackbird

Blackbird singing in the dead of night
Take these broken wings and learn to fly.
All your life
You were only waiting for this moment to arise.

Blackbird singing in the dead of night
Take these sunken eyes and learn to see.
All your life
You were only waiting for this moment to be free.

Blackbird fly, Blackbird fly
Into the light of the dark black night.
Blackbird fly, Blackbird fly
Into the light of the dark black night.

Blackbird singing in the dead of night
Take these broken wings and learn to fly.
All your life
You were only waiting for this moment to arise
You were only waiting for this moment to arise
You were only waiting for this moment to arise

For this reason it is not good to be alone in the world. There is value in having friends and/or family with whom we can share our burdens.

Notes: The painting atop this blog entry is by Turtle, a local Duluth artist. The blackbirds were painted from a window in my apartment my last year in college.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

10 Minutes With John Heino: Not Dead Yet

I met John Heino on the set of Iron Will, a Disney film set here in the Northland. We were extras in the ballroom scene and spent quite a bit of time in the holding area for extras. We had shared just enough that he made a memorable impression and when our paths crossed again through another association, a friendship grew.

By day he is a respected professional, serving as president and CEO of Como Oil & Propane, an energy supplier to this area. But many know him primarily as the keyboardist for one of the region’s most popular rock ‘n roll blues bands, the Centerville All Stars. The more you get to know John the more you discover. His creative spirit and energy crosses into many disciplines, both in the arts and in public service.

He agreed to let me pick his brain last week… or maybe attempt to reflect some of his soul. This interview took place on Friday the 13th, hence the first question.

Ennyman: Is it better to be good or lucky?
JH: Well, I think from a personal fulfillment standpoint, it’s better to be good. If you measure your success by financial or materialistic things, it’s better to be lucky. If you don’t need external validation it’s better to be good.

Ennyman: How did you get into music?
JH: My mother had me take piano lessons when I was about seven years old. I quit when I was ten. I had no appreciation for classical music at that time. What really got me into music was the British Invasion. All of a sudden everyone was listening to music. Everybody was starting bands, combos… The good news for me was that everybody wanted to be a guitar player, so if you could scrape up the money for a keyboard and an amplifier, you could probably get a job with a band.

It wasn’t music theory or creative impulses, but the excitement of the scene, and maybe the girls.

Ennyman: What was it like recording music in the same studio where The Doors recorded?
JH: Our band spent seven years on the road. About a year and a half after high school we were in L.A. after getting comfortable as a group in Seattle. We were actually renting a house, and had soundproofed the garage – in Canoga Park. Kurt, a friend of the guitar player’s who was trying to help us get things going was road manager for the Butts Band… which consisted of drummer John Densmore and (guitarist) Robby Krieger (This was after Jim Morrison had passed.) The Butts Band.. they were rehearsing in our garage… Ray Manzarek came by once or twice.

Ennyman: Didn't you tell me that you saw ZZ Top’s first major performance? How did it feel to see their name in lights when your group had been working so hard to get its name in lights?
JH: ZZ Top was at a place called Starwood… down from the Whiskey A-Go-Go. ZZ Top was just coming out, doing a club show in L.A. … I remember being amazed that three people could have such a full sound.

Ennyman: You once wrote a song about passion. What are you doing these days to keep your creative passion alive?
JH: I still regularly write music. I put out a couple CDs in the past couple years. Photography… I am in the process of printing, mounting and framing photography for a November show at the Red Mug in Superior. I don’t have enough time… I could spend all my waking hours doing either photography or music. Time is limited. I am torn when I have time on a weekend to indulge. Should I write music or go out and shoot photographs. I just spent a weekend up the shore doing pictures of what happens when ice gets blown in.

The conventional wisdom is that you only have one life. But I have been trying to overcome that by living three lives at once. If I could just figure out a way to get rid of sleep. It takes up so much of your time.

Ennyman: You have a Facebook site where you’ve been showing your photography. What is it about photography that gets you so jazzed?
JH: As long as I can remember, I enjoyed looking at photography... When I did finally go to college, I started as an art major and quickly got into photography. Like a lot of people I would have great memories of the great Ansel Adams images, so I would go out with a camera looking for that image.

What broke things open for me was my photography instructor. You have it backwards. Don’t look for the picture… let the picture take you. Don’t think in advance what you are looking for. Get relaxed and just look… and at a certain point you won’t be able to stop reaching for your camera.

On the North Shore, all it takes is a camera and time… God or nature is sending us an infinite stream of images, and if you are just open to actually see…

What excites me, and what I shoot the most, are images you’ll never see again. The one-word short answer for me is “fleeting.” I’ve got thousands of pictures that no one would see if I had not taken them.

There’s something exciting about knowing other people have seen something they would not have seen otherwise.

I’ve only recently realized that a lot of my imagery is related to fractals… each an excerpt from infinity.

There are so many things wrapped up in this [process of making pictures]. The pure aesthetic of reveling in the imagery, the beauty that is there. And there is the anticipation of what you are going to see before you take the pictures. Then there is the aspect of capturing that… And then there’s what happens when people see the work… And then there’s the connection when someone appreciates your work.

I recently went with my son… not talking, but just shooting, then discovering only afterwards what he had shot and I’d shot. Every time there are individualized images and choices with different results.

Ennyman: Perhaps the same can be said with these interviews… each involves choices in regard to questions, focusing the lens at different angles, usually with unexpected and wonderful results. Thanks, John, for sitting still long enough to make this snapshot.

NOTE: Click on images to enlarge. With the exception of my portrait of John, the photos on this page were borrowed with permission from John’s Facebook albums.

Monday, February 16, 2009

The Unifinished Stories (part 2)

SHORT STORY MONDAY

At a writers group in Bedminster, NJ, a frustrated young novelist learns about an exceptionally talented writer named Richard Allen Garston through an old timer there. A member of the group named Willis responds to the younger man's inquiries, confirming Garston's talent and whetting the narrator's appetite for more information about this unknown talent.

The Unfinished Stories of Richard Allen Garston (2)

"I became acquainted with Richard Allen Garston through a writer's group which met irregularly for readings in the late fifties. It was a closed group. That is, by invitation only." Willis laughed, a soft short burst. "We called ourselves the Royal Pines. Horace and I were quite privileged to be a part of it, actually." Willson Willis sucked on a pipe, which made him look especially writerly. "What a shame that one of the great writers of our time will be forever forgotten because of his brother's insanity."

"What kind of things did he write?" I asked.

"From what I could tell he wrote stories, if you can call it that. He created characters and put them in situations."

"You never read his work?"

"He brought fragments to our group, but it was obvious --" He broke off.

I waited.

"His output was prodigious."

"How could you know that?"

"I saw the piles of manuscripts. There were actually two people, I believe, who read most of what he wrote. His brother Greg and one of the other writers in our group, Gary Spencer. When Gary finished reading Garston's work, he quit his job. Went away and became a Trappist monk."
"A Trappist monk?"

"Garston committed suicide about the same time and his brother became guardian of Richard's work. His brother, I was told, refused to speak with anyone about the stories and eventually had them burned, saying they were 'of the devil'."

"If he was such a good writer, why was he never published?" I asked.

"He never finished anything. Richard had developed a whole catalog of rationales and justifications for his mounting pile of unfinished manuscripts. He usually told the group he was following his Muse. I remember on one occasion he produced an elaborate philosophical defense for his habit of incompleteness beginning with the explanation that he was creating life and if his characters were to live forever then the stories must be free to continue living. That is, and here he was emphatic, the stories could remain fluid -- free to assume new forms, to expand, to diminish -- only as long as they were left unfinished and unpublished. It was his hope, he said, that his stories might have a life that would never end. Wait." Willis held up his hand like he was reaching for something or grabbing a moth out of the air. "Now I remember. Something about hope. He said he was fighting to give his characters hope. Something like that. Anyway, should a story be captured in print and closure be reached, there seemed no more possibility of change. Without change there is only death."

"That makes sense, I guess." During the pause I tried to formulate another question, but Willis needed no prodding to continue.

"I don't believe that was it, though," Willis said in a leading way. "To a few of us Richard confided -- he always made light of it, but we've since wondered if this were not closer to the truth -- that he had made a deal with the devil. He said he was like Scheherazade, staving off death by creating his own tales for 1001 nights. In some way I suspect that if this were the truth, it's a wonder that he kept it up for more than eighteen years."

"Based on the stories, or rather, pieces you read," I interjected, "what is your personal evaluation of Mr. Garston's significance as a writer? I mean, if a tree falls in the wilderness and nobody hears..."

Willis leaned into me, lowering his voice. "By what measure do we determine a writer's significance? His contribution? As you know, I've achieved a measure of critical acclaim, but I can't hold a candle to Richard's work. Even the little I read from his manuscripts made me ashamed that I was calling myself a writer. I don't mean to say I'm not good. I capture my stories adequately enough. I care about my characters and their stories. I also care about my readers. But am I a great writer? Not by that highest standard. I'm probably just clever and I work harder than a lot of other people. Now Richard, he was a great writer. A complicated man, but a great, great writer."

I lay awake long into the night, my mind quickened by this single mesmerizing question. What was it that drove Richard Allen Garston to produce so many unfinished manuscripts, to build so many beginnings without resolution? I needed to know.

CONTINUED

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Incentives Matter

Reading the book Freakonomics this past week inspired in me an interest in the theme of incentives. While researching this theme I came across a very cool blog called Incentives Matter. As I read some of the articles I felt like I'd discovered a kindred spirit. I wanted to contact this blog writer to get to know him better. To my astonishment, Pedro Albuquerque, the blog's creator, teaches at a university right here in my home town.

We made contact, suggested lunch, and followed through in a matter of days this past Tuesday. I learned that he was born and raised in Brazil, met his French wife in Switzerland, and speaks Portugese, Spanish, English and French. A really nice guy, and sharp as a tack.

What follows is an interview that emerged from this meeting.

Ten Minutes With Pedro Albuquerque

Ennyman: How did you become interested in economics as a career?
PA: My youth in Brazil was marked by the many economic problems that the country was experiencing during that period: frequent cycles of boom and bust, hyperinflation, black markets, chaotic public finances, debt moratorium, price controls, government's seizure of people's savings or properties, in other words, a whole plethora of events that would make a Lewis Carroll universe look like a very ordinary place.

I had always wondered about the causes of all that distress. It was only after I read two amazing books by Milton Friedman, Capitalism and Freedom and Free to Choose, and Adam Smith's The Wealth of Nations, that I realized how useful economics was as a tool to understand the world around me, and that I wanted to follow a career in economics.

Ennyman: Your blog is titled Incentives Matter. Once a person starts thinking about incentives they realize how it touches such a broad swath of disciplines. How did you personally get attracted to this theme?
PA: The idea that incentives matter permeates the entire science of economics and can be found for example in the books by Friedman and Smith that I cited before. Recently however economists have become much more aware of the relevance of incentives as a defining characteristic of economics as a science. Books like Freakonomics by Steve Levitt discuss the point very openly, and the Nobel Prize given in 2007 to University of Minnesota professor Hurwicz (unfortunately deceased last year) was a huge recognition of the explicit role of incentives in the field.

Economist Glen Whitman once said that if he had to summarize economics in two principles they would be (1) "incentives matter" and (2) "there's no such thing as a free lunch." He called these principles the "two things of economics." Trying to reduce a science to two principles is naturally an oversimplification, yet it's a very useful one, and I entirely agree with his two choices. Among these two principles, "incentives matter" seems to me to be the more uplifting, so that's why I chose it as the title of my blog.

Ennyman: From reading your blog, it's evident that you are following current events in Washington… What is your take on the new administration’s first days in office, as regards economics?
PA: The new administration encircled itself with some extremely competent economists, and that's a good thing. However, I think that history has shown us again and again that one thing is a government that has good economists, and another thing is a government that listens to those good economists.

The first weeks of the new administration frustrated my best expectations and left much to be desired on those grounds. The reality however is that it's too early to tell.

Ennyman: I'm often fond of saying, “When there is an autopsy without blame, then we will find out what killed the patient.” Due to the nature of power politics in D.C.,how will we ever find solutions when no one seems interested in an accurate diagnosis?
PA: This problem is addressed by a field of economics called public choice, and it cannot be easily solved, both analytically and in terms of policy design. The solution naturally passes through the improvement of the quality of our democratic institutions, so they become more immune to political background noise and more focused on policy substance. This is however easier said than done.

One of the most obvious solutions to this problem is to count more on markets and less on politics to solve social problems. Such a statement may not be fashionable right now, given the current political climate, however modern developments in public choice point in that direction. Besides that, there's much that can be done in terms of regulating political action.

For example, politicians love to talk about establishing limits to market forces; however the success of the American experiment is the direct result of an incredibly smart Constitution that instead of promoting limits to markets promoted above all limits to political power. We need more of the blessings that the American Constitution originally gave us, not less.

Ennyman: You stated the one of the biggest problems in politics is pride. Can you elaborate on this?
PA: Pride, up to a certain extent, is a positive human trait. It's however a trait that is not compatible with statesmanship, especially when it presents itself as vanity or lack of humility. The true statesman (or stateswoman) knows that he (or she) is a public server, and it should never be the other way around.

I've always admired the American people for having a very good understanding of this point. We should always remind ourselves of this important positive aspect of our political culture so we make sure that we never forget it.

Ennyman: Sometimes it is difficult to assess how serious issues really are because the media is so frequently beating the drum to support legislation for those in power. How serious is our current crisis?
PA: The crisis is serious, however it's vital that we keep in mind that the American economy is flexible and robust by design, and therefore it has the energy and the means to get out of this mess by itself. The government can help to accelerate the recovery by parsimoniously using all policy instruments available in the macroeconomic toolbox, and, above all, by respecting the two principles of economics cited before. Choosing to ignore the role of economic incentives and costs will not help the economy, on the contrary, will only extend and deepen the crisis.

Unfortunately the new administration, following on the steps of the previous one, has shown until now a disturbing lack of concern for matters of economic incentives and costs. Because of this, I'm seriously concerned that misguided actions by the government may end up extending and deepening the crisis, making it worse than what it should normally be. For example, the constant referencing by government authorities to the idea that economic disaster will ensue if they're not empowered with legislation and funds according to their terms has the real potential to worsen the crisis that they're supposedly trying to resolve.

Ennyman: You mentioned being impressed by President Reagan's impact on world affairs. What in particular do you find impressive about his influence?
PA: President Reagan statesmanship was central to the revival of the American economy and political influence in world affairs in the eighties. He accepted to make very costly political sacrifices in order to get the country out of the economic stagflation of the seventies. With hindsight we know that his bets paid off, however there was no way he could have known that when his government started.Not many politicians have the humility, the moral fiber and the sensibleness necessary to make the hard choices that he made. You have to able to take the heat to do it. Your pride will hurt really bad, and a vain person would never be able to withstand it. Reagan did it however with dignity and grace.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

What Is Love?

"To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything, and your heart will certainly be wrung and possibly be broken."
~ C. S. Lewis

Today, is Valentine's Day. According to the U.S. Greeting Card Association, there will be a billion cards sent again this season, thus making it the second largest card-sending holiday of the year. Christmas, naturally, is numero uno.

Thirty years ago I am pretty sure I inundated my bride-to-be with more than a few cards (and poems) because we were separated at the time. I was in Puerto Rico and she in Maine. We got hitched in August, but at that time the closest I could come to being with her was to look at the moon and hope she was looking at it at the same time.

That year I was working at a Christian book store in suburban San Juan. Being an avid reader, I loved the context I found myself in, other than the aching heart. I discovered many treasures. One was an audio cassette series of lectures featuring C.S. Lewis, in his own words. The theme of these lectures formed the basis of his book The Four Loves, a deserved classic on this universal theme.

If you've not read it, I wholeheartedly commend it to you. But till then, you may find the following review by David Lahti to be a nice appetizer. This is the intro to his reflections on C. S. Lewis' The Four Loves.

What is love? Lewis embarks on a personal and insightful exploration of affection, friendship, romance, and charity.

Reflection
How can so many millions of us believe that love is the best thing in the world, and yet there be so little emphasis in our popular culture on what love is, as distinct from finding someone to love and to be loved by? John Lennon was quicker to say “All you need is love”, than he was to explain what he means by love. Popular songs sometimes take a stab at it, but are better at phrasing questions than providing answers: “What is this thing called love?”, “Is this love?”, “I want to know what love is”, “How will I know when it’s love?”. The voluminous self-help books are focused on practicality rather than explanation, and the works of psychologists and philosophers (for good reasons) often confine their analyses to those aspects of love that result from a study of behavior and are amenable to quantification.

C. S. Lewis’s book, on the other hand, is devoted entirely to an explanation of love that descends into our animal nature, but ascends also into the realm of religion and spirituality whence (Lewis believes) true love comes, and where it reaches its highest and most meaningful fulfillment.


To read Lahti's review in its entirety, along with a few additional recommended readings on this abiding topic, visit his page here.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Luck

"I'd rather be lucky than good." ~ Lefty Gomez

"The race is not always to the swift or the battle to the strong... but time and chance happen to them all." ~ Ecclesiastes 9:11

Today is Friday the 13th, so I thought a few observations about luck were in order, since for many thirteen is an unlucky number. In fact, in 1911, psychologists came up with a name for this fear of thirteen: Triskaidekaphobia. Friday the 13th has been considered unlucky since the 1800s and many buildings have no thirteenth floor because of this irrational anxiety.

It is interesting that the central theme of Woody Allen's 2005 film Match Point centers on the theme of luck, so much so that for the lead character Chris Wilton it is his life theme. Ironically, when Wilton says in the film, "I'd rather be lucky than good," I assumed it was a line written by Mr. Allen, the screenwriter/director. But while doing a search, I see that this quote's source was the Hall of Fame pitcher Lefty Gomez. Allen made it fit so well into the fabric of this film, however. Does this mean no attribution was necessary in that context? Or was Mr. Allen lucky no one noticed?

Thirteen has a positive place in history as well. There were thirteen original colonies and thus the first U.S. flag had thirteen stars and stripes.

Well, getting back to the "lucky or good" notion... Is it really better to be lucky? When we give too much power to luck, are we not saying that we have no power in ourselves? It is realistic to make the acknowledgement to forces outside one's control, as Napoleon did, but even the greatest generals recognize that their troops must be ready for combat and sufficiently armed, and that a strategic plan is required, as opposed to haphazard chaos.

I have often heard the saying that we need to make our own luck. Or as Abe Lincoln put it, "I will prepare myself and the opportunity will come."

How do you feel about luck? Do you feel lucky? And while you're waiting for your ship to come in, what are you doing in the meantime? Are you preparing yourself so as to be worthy when you see the sails approaching your little piece of shoreline? I hope so.

For what it's worth, don't break a mirror today.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Two Hundred and Twenty

Pretty big day today... Abe Lincoln would be 2oo, and my daughter turned twenty. Though she's not yet on the cover of any magazines, my gut tells me she will be some day. She's just that kind of girl. As my Grandma Newman was fond of saying, "Now I hain't braggin', ya hear, but..." and it was usually something about what people said about her cooking, which was mighty fine. In this case, I sort of am braggin' 'bout something mighty fine. Like many dads do, I s'pose, they see something special in their girl.

This past weekend Christina and I went together to the Father-Daughter Ball here in Duluth, an annual tradition of 13 years for some dads, but approximately eight for us, I suspect. In the beginning her dance step was pretty basic. But she's got rhythm and she's a quick study, so she held her own. This year she showed me all the moves I've never had. She knows how to move dem feet. And with her old man, we danced ourselves out. Gosh, it was fun.

As for Abe, something tells me he wasn't that much of a dancing man. That did not keep him from being a significant president, though he has had his share of detractors, hated by many in the South who considered John Wilkes Booth a hero.

Lincoln was born 200 years ago, on February 12, in a cabin near Hodgenville, Kentucky. On a family vacation to my own Kentucky roots my present family (as opposed to the one I grew up in) visited this rough-hewn Lincoln homestead. Though he spent most of his adult life in Illinois, working a series of odd jobs before becoming a lawyer and eventually a politician, he no doubt felt the same as I regarding his modest Kentucky birthplace. It is a remarkable thing that here in America one can still, through hard work and a bit of luck, rise up from literally nowhere to achieve much.

Last week I found an article in the February Smithsonian that does an excellent job of putting Lincoln into perspective. "Lincoln's Contested Legacy" begins by outlining this premise, that Lincoln has been a touchstone for many points of view, even for contradictory viewpoints and political rivals. It reminds me a little of the search for the historical Jesus, except with a lot more material to work with.

Writes Philip Kunhardt III, author of the piece, in its opening, From the time of his death in 1865 to the 200th anniversary of his birth, February 12, 2009, there has never been a decade in which Abraham Lincoln's influence has not been felt. Yet it has not been a smooth, unfolding history, but a jagged narrative filled with contention and revisionism. Lincoln's legacy has shifted again and again as different groups have interpreted him. Northerners and Southerners, blacks and whites, East Coast elites and prairie Westerners, liberals and conservatives, the religious and secular, scholars and popularizers—all have recalled a sometimes startlingly different Lincoln. He has been lifted up by both sides of the Temperance Movement; invoked for and against federal intervention in the economy; heralded by anti-communists, such as Senator Joseph McCarthy, and by American communists, such as those who joined the Abraham Lincoln Brigade in the fight against the fascist Spanish government in the 1930s. Lincoln has been used to justify support for and against incursions on civil liberties, and has been proclaimed both a true and a false friend to African-Americans. Was he at heart a "progressive man" whose death was an "unspeakable calamity" for African-Americans, as Frederick Douglass insisted in 1865? Or was he "the embodiment...of the American Tradition of racism," as African-American writer Lerone Bennett Jr. sought to document in a 2000 book?

For an interesting, though brief, interview with Philip Kunhardt III, who also co-authored the book Looking for Lincoln, check this out.