How To Travel

Differently than the masses with their damn selfie sticks and incessant, narcissistic staged photographs in front of every god forsaken tourist landmark.

Call me hopelessly out of touch. A Luddite. A curmudgeon. A Luddite curmudgeon. Sticks and stones.

Dammit though, when exactly did everyone substitute smart phones for brains?! And my frame of reference was early April, I can’t imagine summer in European cities.

If you live in the US, what would you point a 21st century de Tocqueville to if he or she wanted to understand what life in the (dis)United States is really like? Disney World, the Las Vegas Strip, the National Mall in Washington, DC? If you live outside the US, what would you point someone to if they wanted to begin understanding life in your country in a short period of time?

The trap people fall into is being able to say they’ve seen the most popular places. Others travel in pursuit of good weather, or as a temporary respite from their hectic work lives, or to break out of the mundaneness of their lives.

I’m different, those things don’t motivate me. Not better, just different. I’m most interested in observing and reflecting on what ordinary day-to-day life is like in other places. And then thinking about similarities and differences with my life. I find ordinary aspects of daily life endlessly interesting.

How do parents interact with children? Gently, kindly, absent-mindedly? How much freedom are children and adolescents given? When alone, how do they play together?

Is there much community? How do people create it? In Spain, they go to Tapas bars and eat, drink Sangria, and talk late into the night. No introverts need apply, which probably explains why my application for dual citizenship was summarily denied.

I’d counsel a foreign visitor to the U.S. to skip the big city tourist magnets and instead live for a week or two in a few small to medium sized cities in different parts of the country. Like Marion, Ohio; Valparaiso, Indiana; Seal Beach, California, or Olympia, Washington for example. Attend a school play, get a day pass to the YMCA, attend Olympia’s Arts Walk and Procession of the Species. Go to Vic’s Pizzeria and while eating watch how families interact with one another. At Vic’s, almost always, I’m inspired by the care adults show one another and their children. So much so, I can’t help but think positively about the future. Our politics are hellish at present, but we’ll be okay.

Families—in all their myriad forms—are the building blocks of society, and therefore, a key to understanding any particular place. Whether home or abroad, I’m always eavesdropping on families, in restaurants, in church, in fitness centers, in parks.

How to travel? Go to the world famous museum, ancient city, or cathedral if you must, but resist a steady diet of tourist magnets, instead seek alternative, off-the-beaten-path places as windows into daily life. If my experience is any guide, your life will be enriched by taking the roads less traveled.

Like the Triana farmer’s market in Seville, Spain, where I sat for a long time watching a sixty something father and mother and their thirty something son, cut, wrap, and sell meat to a cross-section of Seville. It was artistry, the way they shared the small space, made eye contact with customers, talked them up, and effortlessly moved product. The son has to take over for the parents at some point, right? He’s a handsome dude with a winsome smile. Does he have a life/business partner to team with? Will he?

Or the small plaza in front of the Sophia Reina Museum in Madrid where school children played a spirited hybrid game of soccer and volleyball while dodging the occasional passerby. Dig that 11 year old girls vicious jump serve. How did she get so athletic so young? A natural. Will she become another great Spanish athlete on the world scene?

Then again, when it comes to alternative tourism, it may be dangerous following my lead. I have 9 pictures from our 11 days in Spain. If someone discovered that at Passport Control at JFK airport in New York, they probably would’ve shredded my passport.

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Another pro tip: always travel with smiley peeps

 

 

 

Of Mountains and Spain 2019

Three years ago, in light of our 30th anniversary, I promised the Good Wife a trip to a “Spanish speaking” country. It only took three years to pull of. The GW has always had a passion for languages, Swedish, Amharic, Spanish in particular. Sad isn’t it, that she married such a language loser, but she has to take responsibility for focusing exclusively on looks.

A week or two before the trip, while loitering in the kitchen, she said to me, “Being in Spain with you is going to be sexy.” Hubba hubba! All of a sudden the long distance flights seemed more manageable. But then I regained my senses and said, “Yeah, except for the fact that you invited our daughters.” Correcting the record, she smiled, “Ah, that was your idea.” What the hell was I thinking? Probably that their schedules would never allow it. They happily proved me wrong. We never should have taken them to live for short stints in China and Norway when they were young.

Here are the sordid details you so desperately want. The four of us shared small apartments in Madrid and Seville for eleven days. I was sick as a perro for about a third of the time. In the end, I’m sorry to report, there was very little hanky and next to no panky.

But all was not lost.

David Brooks in a recent piece, The Moral Peril of Meritocracy, contrasts first and second mountain life. He writes:

“If the first mountain is about building up the ego and defining the self, the second is about shedding the ego and dissolving the self. If the first mountain is about acquisition, the second mountain is about contribution.

On the first mountain, personal freedom is celebrated — keeping your options open, absence of restraint. But the perfectly free life is the unattached and unremembered life. . . . 

So the person on the second mountain is making commitments. People who have made a commitment to a town, a person, an institution or a cause have cast their lot and burned the bridges behind them. They have made a promise without expecting a return. They are all in.”

And:

“Over the past few decades the individual, the self, has been at the center. The second-mountain people are leading us toward a culture that puts relationships at the center. They ask us to measure our lives by the quality of our attachments, to see that life is a qualitative endeavor, not a quantitative one.”

I may finally be approaching the base of the second mountain. Why do I think that? Because when the GW asked me what my favorite moment of the trip was, I wasn’t quite able to tell her. Instead, I told her my second and third favorites.

My absolute favorite was witnessing the wave of emotion that came over her as the trip drew to an end.

The last morning in Seville, I rallied and we went for an aimless walk through our neighborhood’s ancient, narrow streets. Eventually, we ended up at the outdoor window of a tapas bar in a small, beautiful, mostly empty plaza. We ordered dos cafes con leche and waited at an outdoor table. Sipping our drinks, she started to cry. “This is exactly what I wanted to do. I wanted to sit with you at an outdoor cafe and just enjoy the moment.” Later that morning, the tears continued as she declared her abiding love for the whole dam fam. I can’t remember ever seeing her happier.

That made the lengthy planning process, the marathon plane flights, the expenses totally worth it.

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On Workism

Derek Thompson’s Atlantic essay “The Religion of Workism is Making Americans Miserable” deserves widespread discussion around dinner tables; and in churches; synagogues; and heaven for bid, workplaces.

It’s hard to excerpt from because the whole thing deserves a close reading. In particular, the conclusion is strong:

“Workism offers a perilous trade-off. On the one hand, Americans’ high regard for hard work may be responsible for its special place in world history and its reputation as the global capital of start-up success. A culture that worships the pursuit of extreme success will likely produce some of it. But extreme success is a falsifiable god, which rejects the vast majority of its worshippers. Our jobs were never meant to shoulder the burdens of a faith, and they are buckling under the weight. A staggering 87 percent of employees are not engaged at their job, according to Gallup. That number is rising by the year.

One solution to this epidemic of disengagement would be to make work less awful. But maybe the better prescription is to make work less central.

This can start with public policy. There is new enthusiasm for universal policies—like universal basic income, parental leave, subsidized child care, and a child allowance—which would make long working hours less necessary for all Americans. These changes alone might not be enough to reduce Americans’ devotion to work for work’s sake, since it’s the rich who are most devoted. But they would spare the vast majority of the public from the pathological workaholism that grips today’s elites, and perhaps create a bottom-up movement to displace work as the centerpiece of the secular American identity.”

Insightful and important, but incomplete. Thompson misses the sociological nature of workism. He implies well compensated Americans are consciously choosing to work to the point of exhaustion, but the dynamic is far more complex. More of a sociological sensibility is needed to understand two things: 1) the subtle and nuanced way status anxiety contributes to conspicuous consumption, and 2) how a few workaholics can create workplace cultures that lead others to haphazardly conform until a critical mass of pathological workaholism takes over.

Simply put, in some workplaces, you are not truly free to choose whether to make work the centerpiece of your identity or not. Your co-workers make the decision for you.

 

 

Two Types of Legacy

We’re not getting any younger. How will you be remembered?

Jack Bogle, creator of low cost index mutual funds, died yesterday at 89. In Warren Buffett’s opinion, Bogle did more for the American investor than any person in the country by putting “tens and tens and tens of billions into their pockets.” “And those numbers,” Buffett added, “are going to be hundreds and hundreds of billions over time.”

As a self-taught investor, I’ve learned more from Bogle’s writing than from every other financial author combined.

Bogle’s direct, tangible legacy, low cost passive investing, is something that generations of investors will benefit from in perpetuity.

Just as generations of Pacific Northwest citizens will benefit in perpetuity from a local group’s incredibly effective activism that saved Olympia’s LBA Park from being turned into one more housing development.

A second type of legacy is less direct, tangible, and obvious; but equally meaningful. It entails living so exemplary a life that one’s descendants, and others, seek to emulate the deceased person’s attributes.

In the winter, much to the Good Wife’s dismay, I keep the house cooler than she’d prefer. Recently, when I pressed pause to think about why, it took about five seconds to realize it didn’t have anything to do with Jimmy Carter or our household’s economics. I realized it was one small way of honoring my dad’s frugality that stemmed from his Eastern Montana upbringing. A tribute of sorts. My dad never had to tell me to live below my means because he modeled it so persuasively. I want to be humble like him, just as I want to be one-tenth as generous as my mom.

Yesterday I listened to Dan Patrick interview Ian O’Connor author of Belichick: The Making of the Greatest Coach of All Time (so much for humble titles). My interest in football is waning, but Patrick is a great interviewer and O’Connor was insightful. One thing O’Connor said is that both Belichick and Brady are intensely conscious of their respective legacies.

Which got me thinking. I bet Jack Bogle was not intensely conscious of his legacy. I know for sure that Don and Carol Byrnes were not. My plan is to try to do good work, and even more importantly, be a good person, and let my legacy take care of itself. If I’m lucky, someone, sometime, will seek to emulate an attribute or two of mine.

I Have a Theory

How are two people supposed to peacefully co-exist given their different childhoods, insecurities, unique worldviews, and imperfect listening? How given all the uniqueness and flaws each brings to the equation?

We’re often surprised by people we know, or think we know, who decide to divorce, but maybe the more pertinent question is how does anyone stay together long-term?

Why are the Good Wife and I getting along better than normal these days? Because the kitchen is clean and clutter free a majority of the time. I have decided the foundation of successful long-term intimate relationships is a clean and clutter-free kitchen.

Being on sabbatical, I am spending a lot more time in our kitchen than normal. It’s a very nice kitchen and I like spending time in it doing dishes, emptying the dishwasher, cleaning the espresso machine, putting groceries away, preparing food. The GalPal always pitches in too. The twenty-three year old temporary resident, no so much, but our games are so strong, we compensate for her twenty-three year oldness.

Eventually, the sabbatical will end, and my time in the kitchen will be drastically reduced. At which point, all bets are off.

What Is The Church’s Future?

Steve Wright is one of my best friends en todo el mundo. At Southern California’s Cypress High School, we were always the last two shivering on the deck at our 6:30a.m. water polo practices. Eventually, Coach Drent’s threats of additional yardage got us airborne over our fog-shrouded pool.

Today, Steve is a pastor in Huntington Beach, CA, a driver and fairway metal from where we spent our summers surfing and honing our frisbee genius. I invite you to eavesdrop on my Thanksgiving letter to him.

Dear Steve,

Thanks for the excellent resource you posted to Facebook recently. That essay, coupled with several recent “healing” sessions at our church, has me thinking about our church’s recent challenges with conflict and the future of the church more generally. I thought I’d update you on the goings on at Olympia’s Lutheran Church of the Good Shepherd in the hope that what I’ve been thinking about has broader relevance to yours and other churches.

As I listen to people process what happened, I keep returning to four ideas. To understand the first, you have to understand who is attending our healing sessions. The vast majority are the “committed core”, about 15% of the congregation, whose average age is about 70. These stalwarts regularly remind people they’ve been members for 30-50+ years. They spend a lot of time at church and passionately refer to it as their “family”. Some of them are still upset that the Church Council I serve on asked our previous pastor to resign, others that it took us too long to reach that decision, but I digress.

They’re inspiring people whose experience, commitment, and gifts we honor. We also have to understand and be sensitive to their desire to “do church” in the manner they’re most familiar.

My first idea. The more I listen to the committed core talk to one another, the more convinced I am that they don’t have any feel for why younger people and families with school aged children don’t attend or don’t get more involved. We have to make sure the committed core know they’re valued, while listening to and learning from much younger former members, visitors, and others who are just dipping their toes in the LGCS water. Like ethnographers, we need to ask questions of those people and encourage them to talk openly and honestly about what their church experience is like and how they might change it. Absent that type of applied anthropology, I am not optimistic about our future.

My second idea begins with a tangent, but bear with me, it relates. Three-fourths of the way through A’s and J’s schooling, it dawned on me that despite being a former teacher and now a teacher educator, I hadn’t been very involved in their schooling. Kinda ironic. Yes, I attended conferences, but I never filled out a single form or did anything extra. I wondered why and concluded it was The Gal Pal’s fault because she had it totally under control. I didn’t have to do anything because she took charge and immediately swatted any and all forms or related responsibilities back over the net. We shoulda been playing doubles, but I ceded the court to her and neither of us really realized it until after the match was over.

Similarly, think of all the uber-responsible people in their 40’s, 50’s, and 60’s who have taken the lead in the care of their aging parent(s). In some cases, allowing their siblings to coast.

I suspect younger, more casual members of our church watch the committed core in action and conclude “They have it totally under control.” Idea two. I am convinced that the committed core has to let go a bit and learn to do less to create the space for the next generation of members to develop deeper commitments to the community. This is hella tough though because their identities are so closely tied to their church roles and activities.

I’ve observed a similar dynamic in higher education. Almost always, the most senior faculty are the most vociferous when a new curriculum is being developed despite the fact that they won’t be around to implement it. It’s exasperating to say the least. They simply can’t let go.

How do we nudge the committed core to choose not to serve on Council so that other newer members can? How do we get them to speak less often in meetings so that other newer members can? And maybe even, how do we get them to volunteer a little less, so that newer members need to?

Idea three. When it comes to church conflict, we talk about the importance of forgiveness, but absent regular opportunities to work through contending viewpoints about how things are or aren’t going, resentments build. Too often, we rush to “just be done” with a conflict before people truly reconcile. Then, when the next conflict arises, people’s resentments inevitably resurface, making the resolution of the conflict much more complex and challenging. It’s like we’re on a bench press and between reps someone keeps adding 10 lb. weights on each end of the bar.

Also, I doubt that casual church goers are very understanding of church conflict. Idea four. Everyone has a finite capacity for dealing with conflict. And everyone has a little or a lot in their extended families and at their workplaces. It may be naive, but it’s also totally understandable for people to want their church to be somewhat of a conflict-free oasis. Wherever and whenever a couple of hundred people form community, there will be conflict, but given our finite capacity for dealing with it, how do we proactively reduce the number and intensity of conflicts in our church communities?

I left you with a question, which I guess means you have to write back. Or give me an extra 500 yards.

I’m thankful for our friendship.

Happy Thanksgiving to you and yours,

Ron

 

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Absent the 1980 Summer Olympic boycott, Steve, Kevin, and I woulda brought home water polo gold. I’m sure of it.

Train For Thanksgiving

Thanks Karin Tamerius of Smart Politics for this five-step method on how to have difficult conversations.* One question though, why with our ever deepening commitment to gender equity, is it ALWAYS a crazed uncle? There has to be at least one crazy aunt out there somewhere doesn’t there?

*happy to report that I aced it, but don’t trust my results, given my relative calm when taking the hypothetical, self-paced test

Postscript: Thanksgiving Netflix scorecard. House of Cards Season Six, “terrible” doesn’t do it justice. Shoulda killed the show with FU. Narcos Mexico Season One, excellent, as long as you can stomach guys whacking one another at point blank. Schitt’s Creek Season Four. Alison Byrnes says it’s the best season yet. She’s wrong (again), but it’s still a lot of fun. I’ve never heard the Good Wife laugh so consistently at any series ever. Especially at Moira.