In Praise of Literary Tussles

The week that was. Ukraine v Russia. Israel v Palestine. Syria v the Islamic State group. Too many lives cut short, too many families torn asunder.

If only we could substitute bloodless literary tussles for the violent ones that dominate the headlines.

For that to happen, we need provocative essay writers willing to ruffle readers’ feathers. Enter Tom Junod of Esquire. I’m guessing he was caught off-guard by just how many feathers his essay “In Praise of 42 Year-Old Women” ruffled.

I really, really, really liked Julie Checkoway’s clever and perceptive response to Junod. Checkoway convincingly hypothesizes that Junod is struggling with his mortality.

She writes:

Men have a lot more trouble, I think, admitting their fear of aging and death than women do. In my experience, women are more openly verbal, at least, about our terror. Typically, men either joke about it or have affairs or splurge on a sports car (these are stereotypes, so fill in your own experience of men here). But they rarely write about the terror of aging honestly. . .

But men are just as terrified as women of aging and dying. . . . How could they not be? They’re human. It’s just that they talk about it in a different way than women do. They talk about it by talking about women’s . . . fading attractiveness. And most men’s magazines—-unlike most women’s magazines—-aren’t filled with articles that expressly address aging graciously, painfully, or at all.

Men’s magazines, like Esquire, are filled with articles like Junod’s, articles in which men talk about how it’s okay with them for women to age. Just a little. And then a little more. And then a little more. Men are writing about death and aging, but they’re just writing about it by writing about us.

Checkoway’s response to Junod is direct, caring, specific, and philosophically rich. And her analysis rings true.

Got Religion–Where are the Young Adults?

In her new book, Got Religion: How Churches, Mosques, and Synagogues Can Bring Young People Back, Naomi Schaefer Riley has advice for religious leaders who want to connect with people born after 1980. Here’s her conclusion*:

“Religious leaders who are successfully connecting with young adults realize that sleek advertising is not going to bring people into the pews. The barriers to entry are not matters for public relations firms to tackle. Young adults want community. They want a neighborhood. They want a critical mass of people their age. But they want to see older people and younger people in their religious institutions, too. They want a way to serve, and many of them want a way to serve sacrificially for longer periods of time. They want the racial and ethnic diversity of the country reflected in their religious community. They want a message (in English) that resonates and helps them tackle the practical challenges they face, of which there are many. They want to feel welcome whether they are single or married. And while they may appear to be experiencing an extended adolescence, when they are given responsibility, they are often inclined to take it.”

Yesterday’s on-line version of the New York Times included a prominently placed article that makes me think Schaefer Riley’s conclusion needs tweaking. Here’s the lead of the article titled, “Mormon Church Warns 2 Activists of Excommunication“:

Kate Kelly and John P. Dehlin, who have gained national attention for pushing the church to ordain women to the priesthood and to accept openly gay members, have been notified this week that they face expulsion for apostasy.

This is how I would amend NSR’s concluding insight, “They want to feel welcome whether they are single or married; male, female, or transgendered; straight or gay.” Maybe Schaefer Riley sidestepped sexual politics because the heaviest religious hitters—the Catholic Church and Mormon religion among them—seem to be doing fine despite their heterosexual, patriarchal dictums.

But I can’t help but wonder, given the pace of cultural change, whether over the next 50-100 years, the Catholic Church’s and Mormon religion’s growth will slow and/or reverse if women and sexual minorities are not embraced as full-fledged members of those communities.**

* thanks to Amazon reviewer George P. Wood for this reference

** some recent studies already show a decline within Catholicism, granted some would argue that a liberalizing of church policy would only hasten it’s decline, a point upon which reasonable people can and do differ

 

Grand Canyon Rim to Rim: What a Walk

Thirty plus of us started at the North Rim at 7a.m. The group consisted mostly of Federal Highway administrator friends of Dan, Dan, the Transportation Man. Pre-trip, I asked him about the weather. He said he’d never seen a cloud on his previous three hikes.

Within the first 500 meters, lightening danced around us, hail fell from the sky, and we saw a dead mule covered with a tarp. The hail turned to light rain and we enjoyed cloud cover off and on throughout the day. The Canyon vets said it was about 25 degrees cooler than normal. I may have never made it if it was 100+.

Hiking the canyon is an enigma, your spirit is lifted while your body is punished. I had my bike computer in my pocket, but its global positioning system was cutting in and out meaning the mileage was off, but the first half descent of 6,600′ seemed spot on. The toughest point for me was the middle because as I descended my lower back got progressively tighter to the point where I thought it was going to completely seize up.

There are no rescues in the Canyon, once you drop in, you’re committed to the full meal deal. I took some comfort in the fact that I was among the first few hikers in our group meaning if my back completely gave out, people would find me on the trail and provide a proper burial. I also rolled my ankle at one point, took a wrong turn, did some ill-advised bushwhacking that added distance, and nearly ran out of water before lunch at Phantom Ranch.

I was not hiking particularly quickly, but I spent the first half of the day enjoying wonderfully long stretches without stopping for more than a few seconds for a picture or water. I reached the South Rim at 6:15p and guess that I was moving for about 9:45 of that 11:15. I enjoyed a longer lunch than normal, about an hour, because Dan and others rolled in just as I was beginning to feel semi-normal.

I used the additional time to stretch my back. The ascent was unrelenting and damn steep. I was conscious of how uniquely beautiful my surroundings were about 75% of the time. The rest of the time, I was so shelled that all I could do was focus on the next twenty meters.

There’s something wonderfully primitive about walking long distances. Maybe because it has been the dominant mode of transportation for the vast majority of world history. I dig my carbon fiber bicycle, but it doesn’t connect me to the ancient past in the way that walking long distances does. And in the Grand Canyon the ancient past is in stereo because your constantly surrounded by unrivaled geologic wonders.

Thanks be to God for the health to walk into and up out of the grandest of canyons.

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Keeping Score—What Matters Most?

Last week, a friend, via Facebook, asked me how I was doing. “Excellent,” I wrote. “My family is healthy and happy.” At this stage in my life, everything beyond my family’s health and happiness is like desert, nice, but unnecessary.

Like individuals, organizations can’t evaluate how they’re doing without first clarifying what’s most important. That’s why so many teachers are frustrated today, schools obsess about students’ test scores instead of whether students are curious, kind, and able to accomplish meaningful things in small groups.

On Sundays, I often wonder how do religious leaders keep score? What’s most important in evaluating how a church, synagogue, or mosque is doing? That the budget is balanced, that attendance is increasing, that a lot of mission work is being done?

Our church is in transition. Sometime in the next four or five months, a new pastor will replace our two departing ones. The reduction is partly due to a 20% decrease in membership and a 13% decrease in giving.

Here’s my imperfect understanding of what’s happened. Four or five years ago we hired two progressive pastors who were left-of-center politically; some key church council leaders were lefties; our synod, the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America decided to ordain gay clergymen and women; our state voted in favor of marriage equality; and we rewrote our “Welcoming Statement” to explicitly reach out to GLBT members of our community.

That pace of change overwhelmed some people. Also, as it turns out, people inside religious organizations have dispiriting personality conflicts just like people on the outside. One of our church members told me the members who won the political debates about gay clergy, marriage equality, and the wording of our Welcoming Statement were not gracious winners.

How do religious bodies negotiate political differences and does that factor into how they are doing? Conventional wisdom is that religious leaders and their congregants should leave politics aside. I disagree. Churches, synagogues, and mosques would be much more vital places if they modeled mutual respect for contrasting political viewpoints. Public dialogue about controversial issues is so anemic right now, lots of people on the outside would take notice.

Granted, that’s easy to assert in the abstract, but when talking about abortion, the death penalty, or even marriage equality, it’s much, much harder to implement. In fact, I wonder, are there examples of political diverse religious communities thoughtfully engaged with contemporary issues? Birds of a political feather prefer to flock together, but is that inevitably true inside churches, synagogues, and mosques as well?

I hope not. And I hope our next pastor considers that challenge among the things that matter most.

Stoic Insights on How to Put Up With Put-Downs

One of my running partners manages a hair care sales team. Last week he began a run by telling Dan, Dan, the Transportation Man that he had a new product for him. Some concoction that would make his hair thicker. “What about me?” I asked. “If anyone needs it, it’s me. What am I chopped liver?” “You’re too far gone!”

From my notes from William Irvine’s A Guide to the Good Life:

Understandably, people are sensitive to insults. Rather than deserving our anger, flawed people who criticize us deserve our pity. As people make progress in Stoicism they will become increasingly indifferent to people’s opinions of them. Because they are indifferent to others’ opinions, they feel hardly any sting when insulted. One of the best ways to respond to an insult is with humor, especially self-deprecating humor. Sometimes the best response is no response at all, to calmly and quietly bear what has happened. That robs the person of the pleasure of insulting us.

Self-deprecating humor is like Bill Wither’s music or sunshine in the Pacific Northwest, you can never have too much of it. The trick is to make so much fun of yourself than no one else can compare. In the past, I’ve singled out Tina Fey as a self-deprecating sensei worthy of study. Now, meet her equal, Emily Yoffe or Slate Magazine’s Dear Prudence. Prudence somehow answers impossibly difficult questions about all sorts of interpersonal, romantic, and sexual dysfunction. One of her most recent Q&A’s made me laugh aloud. Do not ruin it for me by suggesting some college students wrote it late at night as a prank on the electronic magazine. It has to be authentic.

Q. I am having a rather silly problem with my otherwise wonderful wife. She gets up early every morning before work to go to the gym, and then takes a shower when she gets back to our small one-bedroom apartment. After her shower, she says she gets overheated easily while we’re both getting ready for work. I can understand that—I’ve already showered while she’s gone, she’s been exercising, and then she’s showered, plus she needs to use a blow dryer to style her hair. But her way of dealing with this is to walk around almost naked (in just her bra and underwear) until she absolutely has to get dressed to leave for work. She eats breakfast like this, puts on her makeup this way—she basically just goes about her morning routine with barely any clothes on and sometimes she skips the bra entirely. Under other circumstances, I would enjoy this. But when I’m trying to get myself ready for the day, this is kind of distracting. I find myself getting aroused, and since we’re both trying to get out the door for work, it’s a bad time for sex. But then I get to work and I’m frustrated all day long. I’ve tried raising this issue with her (delicately) and she gets offended that I can’t control myself after we’ve been married for eight years, which I find offensive. She’s the one walking around half-naked. How can I try to resolve this with her peacefully?

A: Ah, tempus fugit! At this stage in my life, the way I turn off my husband is to walk around naked. This is a sweet dilemma, so it’s too bad you both get so annoyed with each other over the fact that after eight years the sight of your undressed wife bouncing around the apartment is so arousing. I get letters from women wishing that their husbands weren’t lounging around with the family jewels draped over the upholstery (they do not find it a turn-on). But I think yours is the first from a guy who finds his wife’s toilette so distracting he can’t get out the door. But surely, once you’re at the office, you are able to focus on the marketing data and don’t spend the whole day moaning over your morning testicular vasocongestion. If you’re not able to move on and save it for later, you sound very juvenile. Instead of continuing to fight over this, try taking action (not the kind of action that will make you late for work). Buy a pretty, short, sheer robe for your wife and give it to her as a gift. Explain that she’s so damn attractive that if she were a little more covered in the morning it would help you focus on the day ahead. Tell her she of course doesn’t have to wear it, but you know that color looks great on her, and you hope it’s lightweight enough that she can put it on without getting overheated. Let’s hope that she takes your gesture in good spirit and likes the robe. Of course, if it’s silky and sexy, seeing her in it may have the unintended consequence of overheating you.

Prudence’s line about turning off her husband provided the second best laugh of the week. The best goes to my daughters, one of whom posted this picture to her Facebook page.

The two things I'm most proud of in todo el mundo.

The two things I’m most proud of in todo el mundo.

What People Get Wrong About Financial Literacy

Every spring a friend in North Carolina and I have a NCAA college basketball tournament bet. He takes the teams representing the Atlantic Coast Conference and I get those representing the Pacific-12. If his teams win more games, I send him a t-shirt, if mine win more, I anxiously await my cotton trophy. This year, neither conference did well, but I barely won a stylish long sleeve Guilford College tee*.

We met teaching and playing noon basketball at Guilford College in Greensboro, North Carolina, in the 90s. This year, along with the shirt(s—one for the Good Wife too, and a coffee mug, Christmas in April), he included four copies of recent Guilfordians, the liberal, liberal arts school’s student paper.

Reading them made it seem like time had stood still. Faculty salaries were still the lowest among a large comparison group of peers. Enrollment was down. Faculty morale was flagging. Some well-liked faculty were leaving to the disappointment of students. Students were protesting the administration’s salaries, which had increased markedly, and were at least average among the same comparison group. Tucked in one of the articles was a devastating detail that will make the new president’s job especially difficult. The small Quaker school has $16m in deferred maintenance. They budget $1.8m a year for continuing maintenance, meaning they’re eight years behind. Some students complained about mold in the dorms.

Colleges on the financial edge routinely defer maintenance. “Let’s delay the roof on the science lab another year.” Eventually, the quality of life for students and faculty suffers, and as with mounting credit card debt, the financial challenges multiply and trustees fret they’ll never catch up. Public schools, churches, and city council’s everywhere face the exact same challenge. Can we manage our finite revenue—whether bonds or levees, charitable contributions, or taxes—well enough to maintain our existing buildings, roadways, and parks? If you want to assess the health of a school district, church, or city, find out how much maintenance they have deferred.

We’re fortunate that our Washington State home backs up to beautiful woods that we’ve enjoyed for sixteen years. In the woods there are hiking and running trails, deer, owls, and a path to a nice city park. Now the woods are for sale and three different developers are interested. Many in our community who have organized to save the woods from being turned into another housing development attended the City Council meeting last week to implore the Council to follow through on their own five-year plan for creating more park space.

The organizing committee has done great work thinking creatively about grants and related funding that makes the purchase seem feasible. imgres But the city has been deferring maintenance on our existing parks. One includes a nice boardwalk along the Puget Sound, a walkway so neglected, parts of it will be closed to the public this summer. While sympathetic to our arguments, the city manager and council both regretted that the city can’t afford to purchase and preserve the woods because they’ve deferred far too much maintenance.

It’s human nature to put off saving for future expenses. Just like colleges, school districts, and churches, I do it all the time too. I replace my nicked up bicycle tires after flatting a few times. I get my lawn mower tuned up when it won’t start. I go to the doctor when I’m near death.

I talked to the college senior recently about car ownership. Most twenty-one year olds think exclusively about the purchase price, “If I can just save $5k for that $5k car.” I impressed on her the need for a “cushion” for additional costs like insurance, gas, and regular maintenance including oil changes, the battery, and tires. In an ideal world, she’d also factor in replacement costs, but that’s pie in the sky. Once I broadened her thinking about car ownership, she realized it’s not financially feasible yet.**

Most financial literacy talk is seriously flawed. Everyone overemphasizes technical knowledge. Do you know the “rule of 72”? Do you understand the power of compounding interest? Do you understand asset allocation, mutual funds, investing costs, dollar cost averaging, and taxes impact on your returns?

People think if schools just taught that knowledge all would be well, but it’s not that people don’t know enough about personal finance, it’s that they lack the self-discipline to spend less than they earn. Including legions of college educated people who would pass a personal finance multiple-choice test.

Schools can’t teach young people to defer purchases, to set aside money to adequately maintain and eventually replace possessions, to live within one’s means. The only way to teach anyone the limits of consumerism, to delay gratification, the importance of savings, and how to live within one’s means, is to model it for them over time.

Fortunately, my parents, especially my dad, taught me those habits without ever sitting me down for any sort of money talk. For colleges, churches, cities, and families, “deferred maintenance” means “We’re in the habit of spending more than we have.” Like mounting interest charges, it ties the hands of college administrators, church councils, city councils, and families.

We are extremely fortunate to be able to meet our family’s basic needs each month with some money left over. We can do one of three things with our surplus. 1) Succumb to status anxiety and buy unnecessary luxury items; 2) Keep existential questions about life’s larger purposes at bay through mindless consumerism; or 3) Set some of the surplus aside for anticipated future expenses.

* During graduate school, my friend was a UC Santa Cruz hippie. The UC Santa Cruz mascot is the banana slug. Second Born and I had lunch in downtown Santa Cruz in late January. After lunch we found a must have t-shirt that featured a large banana slug with the caption “SLUG LIFE”. The perfect gift for my next loss. So good in fact we decided I had to send it this year win or lose. He was very grateful and assured us he’ll get a lot of grief for it from his Geezer basketball pals. That, of course, was our hope.

** Odd to me that she’s not more motivated to make it financially feasible. At eighteen, I couldn’t wait to own my own car. So I parked golf carts and picked up range balls for a few years and bought a VW Bug for $1,500. Most gratifying purchase of all time. For the time being at least, in keeping with her peers, she’s perfectly content to bicycle, use public transportation, or, and maybe this is the problem, use her parents spare car.

How to Live—Patrick, Jess, Alyssa

• Patrick and Jess married in August, 2012. Eight months later they were watching people finish the Boston Marathon when a bomb exploded next to them. Both lost left legs. Patrick, “We’ll figure this out.” Jess, “As equally overwhelming as the evil that day, was how incredibly good these people were.” A touching story about love and resilience nicely told by Eric Moscowitz. For anyone wanting inspiration on how to live. And listen to Patrick speaking last week. “Sewing the threads of community.”

• Last week, Alyssa Mastromonaco, President Obama’s Deputy Chief of Staff for Operations for the last eight years, gave her first interview. Hagiographic, but lots of excellent insights, especially on the importance of selflessness, teamwork, and kindness. A must watch for my daughters.

 

 

Long Live the Memory of Erwin Byrnes

I am Don and Carol Byrnes’s son. Don’s, Karen’s, and David’s brother. Erwin Byrnes’s nephew.

Long live the memory of Erwin Byrnes, 1928-2014. Read his obituary here. And an article about how he planned his death here.

“It took a lot of nerve on his part,” Tom Byrnes said. “He was like, it’s 10 o’clock, let’s go.” “We just know this is the way we want to get treated,” Erwin said a few days before. “People may not agree with us, but that’s our choice, not anyone else’s choice. We have to be kind of the driver of our own bus.”

imgresAnd on writing women’s obituaries.

The Sure-fire Way to Increase Conflict in Your Life

Just in case your life isn’t conflict-ridden enough already. Project your definition of success onto others. And then judge them accordingly. They will almost always come up short. This is most unhappy people’s go-to strategy for maximizing their misery.

We forget, over and over again, that other people and cultural groups define success differently than us. Some people’s life goals are material and economic in orientation. They pursue material well-being, even sometimes at the expense of close interpersonal relationships. Other people and cultural groups prioritize family life and friendship more than lucrative work and consumerist lifestyles. 

Amy Chua, of TigerMom fame, and her husband, Jed Rubenfeld have lit a fire with The Triple Package: How Three Unlikely Traits Explain the Rise and Fall of Cultural Groups in America. I’ve only read excerpts of The Triple Package, but I’ve listened to a few radio interviews with Chua and Rubenfeld, both Yale Law School faculty. Someone should’ve waved a white towel midway into one I heard on National Public Radio. The criticism of Chua’s and Rubenfeld’s work that interests me the most is that they project a Western, highly educated, well-to-do notion of success onto everyone. Like Chua and Rubenfeld, we tend to define “success” far too narrowly. And then project our thinking onto our partners, our adolescent or adult children, and other people near and far.

There’s a magical, two-part elixir for this malady. Humility and curiosity. Instead of assuming a common definition of success, we need to learn to ask our partners, our adolescent or adult children, and other people near and far what their life goals are, what for them constitutes success in life. Once we have a feel for that, we can inquire into how they’re doing in achieving their goals.

That defuses conflict and fosters mutual respect.

Kikkan Randall Take Away—Find Joy Everyday

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Condensed from Jim Caple of espnW:

Tuesday was supposed to be more than just a great day for Kikkan Randall, it was also to be a great day for American cross-country skiing, its best day in nearly four decades.

America has won only one Olympic medal in the sport, and that was 38 very long years ago when Bill Koch took the silver medal at the 1976 Innsbruck Games. That’s nearly four decades of endless frustration, disappointment and losses by very large margins. The United States has been such an underdog in the sport that four-time Olympian Kris Freeman compares America beating cross-county powerhouse Norway to a Little League team beating the Yankees.

But Tuesday was going to be oh, so deliciously different.

Randall, the 31-year-old Alaskan skier with pink-streaked hair, won five World Cup races last year and won back-to-back World Cup races last month. She is a two-time world sprint champion. She said the Sochi course was favorable to her style. Everyone . . . picked her to win gold in Tuesday’s sprint free race.

Instead, Randall didn’t even reach the semifinals.

She started off well in the fifth quarterfinal heat, taking the lead by skiing powerfully up the 1.3-kilometer course’s hill. She held the lead as the athletes entered the course stadium and raced toward the finish line.

Then, Germany’s Denise Herrmann passed her. (Because the top two skiers advance from the quarterfinals, Randall still was in good shape, though.)

But then Norway’s Marit Bjoergen passed her.

Because the two skiers with the next two fastest times overall also advance, Randall’s chances still were looking decent.

But then Italy’s Gaia Vuerich passed her just before the finish line.

Randall still had a chance to advance as the second qualifier (aka, a “lucky loser”) if her time had been fast enough, but it wasn’t. After waiting many anxious seconds, she learned she had been too slow.

“That final gear wasn’t quite there and then I fell apart there right before the finish and didn’t get a lunge in,” she said. Official results indicated she was actually five-hundredths behind Vuerich. “I’m sure I’ll be living those moments hundreds of time in my head.”

After a television interview. . . Randall walked down the steps to the mixed zone to speak with reporters. Tears flowing down her cheeks, she leaned against a barrier and buried her head in her arms.

This was only natural, given that she carried the tremendous weight of her country’s hopes for cross-country. Randall didn’t just want a medal for herself, she wanted a medal to boost the sport throughout America. She wants more Americans out on the trail, learning how wonderful and fun her sport is while improving their health and fitness.

“It’s rough, but that’s sport, right?” Randall said of her disappointing day. “You prepare your whole life for something like this and it’s over in 2½ minutes.”

It’s especially rough because of the cross-country system that alternates sprint styles every Olympics. One Olympics, the sprint will be raced classic style; the next it will be free style. The free sprint, Randall’s specialty, will not be held again until the 2022 Olympics, when she is 39.

I admire Randall for going all in on medaling, but wonder if she’ll think it was worth it. “The joy,” some wise person once said, “is in the journey.” I’m sure Randall isn’t feeling too joyful right now, but in time I hope she feels the effort was worthwhile. That she has positive memories from some training sessions; and other victories; and her world travels; and most especially, her friendships with teammates, fellow competitors, trainers and coaches. Despite the bitter disappointment of not achieving her ultimate goal, I hope she feels her life is richer as a result of the attempt.

Sometimes I’m asked if I’m going to do another long distance triathlon. The key question for me is whether I could enjoy the extensive training required. If I do re-up, I will think of the race as just one small part of the larger equation.

Although I get the allure of sporadic, specific instances of accentuated risk/reward like Olympic competition, I prefer stitching together meaningful daily routines that tip the balance towards deeper relationships, better physical health, and greater spiritual enlightenment. Yesterday was a great day not just because it was my birthday, but because of small, simple joys—a longish morning swim workout; a green tea latte; unexpected emails from distant friends; unexpected sunshine; a walk with the wife and labradude; phone conversations with my two fav college students; and dinner out at Gardner’s.

Gardner’s is a bit fancy pants, but Kikkan Randall taught me something today. Don’t live too far in the future. Find joy everyday.