Friday, November 25, 2011


A New York Times article said,

Cultivating an “attitude of gratitude” has been linked to better health, sounder sleep, less anxiety and depression, higher long-term satisfaction with life and kinder behavior toward others, including romantic partners. A new study shows that feeling grateful makes people less likely to turn aggressive when provoked...

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Taken Back to School

Even though I was on summer holiday from my job as an independent school administrator, a recent experience took me back to school.

I closed this past summer with a short vacation that included a few days in Prague followed by a stop in Paris. Nick Reynolds, a friend who lives in London, arranged to meet me in Paris since he was also on summer holiday. We share a passion for our common hobby, photography. Paris sounded like an excellent late summer photo opportunity.

We arrived in Paris on the second Sunday in August. I took a midday flight from Prague to Paris. Nick traveled on a late afternoon Eurostar train from London’s St. Pancreas Station. I checked into our hotel before taking the subway to Gare du Nord to meet Nick’s train. We made a quick return to the hotel to drop off his bag, and then we collected our camera gear and tripods and set out to photograph Arc de Triomphe.

It was a beautiful evening in Paris. The late setting sun provided a few hours for us to work the angles as we circled the monument taking photos. The sun set slowly and the cloudless sky changed from orange to blue to black, marking the photographic “golden hours” that bracket dusk to early evening to night. Just after 9:00, lights turned on illuminating the Eiffel Tower in the near distance.

It was a perfect night in Paris and a great start to what would be a brilliant few days in France.

On our walk back to the hotel, even though it was late, we decided to search for a market near Porte Maillot where we could buy a bottle of wine to enjoy in the outdoor patio attached to the hotel lobby. We were not ready to call it a night and there was a lot to catch up on since we live on different continents.

Just as we began to worry if we would find an open market, we saw a man walking towards us with a brown paper bag in hand. That gave us hope that there was a store in the vicinity. Thoughtlessly, I pointed to the paper bag and blurted out, in English, “Where’s the market?” The man with the bag gave me a patient look, made an exaggerated swooping gesture with his free hand and said, “Bonsoir” in perfect rhythm with the wave of his hand. To be sure that I understood the lesson, he focused his gaze on me, eye-to-eye, and repeated, “Bonsoir.” 

I was embarrassed by my bullish lapse in manners that framed me as a not-too-photogenic “American in Paris.”

I got the lesson.

I’ll remember the second Sunday in August 2011 as the night I was schooled by a Parisian who did, in fact, direct my friend and me to a fruit stand market where we bought two liters of water, a bottle of Bordeaux and a basket of strawberries.

Friday, August 5, 2011

Surviving Maine

As a newly appointed assistant dean, and fresh arrival to the College, I was honored when students asked me to be faculty advisor to the outing club. Perhaps, I thought, this meant they would no longer be suspicious of my judgment, as they had been since learning that I moved from Santa Barbara, California to live in Waterville, Maine.

My association to the Colby College Outing Club came with benefits. I had free access to a storehouse of outdoor gear, including the canoe that I checked out to use on the river that ran beside my house, and I could sign up for trips to explore the beauty of Maine. Some of those trips rank among the best in my memory of outdoor adventures. The return hike on Mount Katahdin, the terminus of the Appalachian Trail, included a take-your-breath-away trek across the precipitous “Knife Edge” that traverses the ridge between Baxter Peak and Pamola Peak. One morning’s adventure led to Cadillac Mountain in Acadia National Park. We were among the first people in America to see the sunrise that day, since coastal Maine is the easternmost edge of the United States.

A particular spring Sunday afternoon held three adventures that tell three stories of personal survival. That was the afternoon that two students invited me to go kayaking on Great Pond, which sounded like a great adventure since it would be my first time kayaking. Even though we were in open water, we used river kayaks, which are closed hull crafts with a “skirt” that seals the boater in the kayak. Kaj, the outing club president, gave me a rudimentary lesson on using a paddle, and added at the end, almost as an afterthought: “Since we don’t have time to teach you to roll, remember to pull the skirt off your boat if you turn upside down.” With that, we pushed off; I took up the rear as the two students, who were experienced kayakers, led out across the pond.

Kaj’s final instruction proved to be lifesaving because within minutes my kayak flipped over. I was submersed head first in Great Pond without the ability to right myself. My first thought was, “I am going to drown.” The reality of certain death arrived with surprising calm, and with as much emotion as hearing the weather forecast on a sunny day: “slight chance of afternoon clouds.” Then, I remembered Kaj’s lesson, “… pull the skirt off your boat if you turn upside down.” The skirt came off easily, and I bobbed to the surface. I righted the boat and then noticed my dislocated shoulder.

I survived turning over in a sealed kayak, and this story avoids being a tragic tale told by someone else. The students towed me and my boat to shore. We drove to the hospital in Waterville, where adventure number two commenced, since, like me, the doctor on duty had never seen a dislocation, which would make putting me back together an experience of orthopedic speculation. The third adventure followed when we left the emergency room and went to dinner, where I learned not to eat Thai chili peppers.

My years in Maine held many adventures that are, to me, individual stories of grace and wonder. Those stories, however, like survival adventures two and three, will have to wait their turn to be told.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011


I did purchase the trip - well, an altered version of the original trip with a bit more finesse,

I met a former student for coffee who told me about his recent whirlwind trip through Europe - pretty much all of it. He strongly encouraged me to add Prague to my itinerary, which I was able to do since I hadn't finalized with the airline.

Splitting the trip equally between Paris and Prague adds more interest, to me. And, since I'm allowed one stop over in the itinerary, adding Paris as a stop over cost no extra miles for this trip. I'm fortunate that Air France is the partner carrier with my airline. The natural route is Los Angeles - Paris - Prague  - Paris - Los Angeles. The only add on was additional taxes of about $54.

What's the lesson now? Perhaps there's not a simple take away. I'm glad that I acted. I'm also glad that I waited long enough to be able to have a creative option that is more satisfying and interesting than my original plan.


Monday, July 18, 2011

Not my gift

Spontaneity is not my gift,

I like options, so making a decision takes away options, because I've decided on a path. However, in keeping options open, I miss opportunities.

This sounds like a no-brainer when I put it in writing: loosen up and take some risks. I wish it were that easy.

I did, however, do two and a half spontaneous things yesterday and I didn't wake up today feeling like my life is a disaster.

One: I joined the Bowers Museum. I bought and online membership and visited the museum with a friend yesterday afternoon.

Two: I signed up for an online writing course with Gotham Writing Workshop. I'll begin a six-week course starting next Tuesday.

One-half: I have a reservation on hold to go to Paris next month using frequent flyer miles. I was able to get a reservation on non-stop flights at a reasonable mileage rate. I'll also be able to add on a hotel room, using points, just steps from Arc de Triomphe and the Champs-Élysées.

This is where the rub is: I haven't made the commitment to take the trip. I have the time, the cost for the flight and hotel will come to $140.00 and points. A more spontaneous person wouldn't have hesitated.

What's the point of this post? Perhaps I'm making a public statement about how small risks loom large when a person (that would be me) is overly cautious. Of course I'll commit to taking this trip. I'll enjoy my week in Paris and everything will go smoothly. Another outcome, hopefully, is that I'll build more trust in the value that spontaneity adds to life.

Monday, June 27, 2011


I'm not sure where this post will go.

Yesterday was my birthday. I started the day having spent the night with dear friends, their 18 month old son, and their wonderful dog, Ling Ling. After breakfast, I drove to Palm Springs for a memorial gathering of friends for a friend who passed away two weeks ago.

I didn't make a big deal of juxtaposing my birthday with also attending a memorial gathering. However, it would be foolish of me not to reflect on what makes for a life well-lived.

I've made decisions about how I live my life.Service to others is a primary driver for how I invest my physical and emotional energies, and my capital.

I think that it's good to reflect on purpose, and to regularly take stock.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Two articles

Two articles caught my attention this afternoon. The first addresses how Americans do not take vacations. It seems that we work all the time. It was on Why is America the "no vacation nation"? One man speaks about the culture in his office: "The running joke at Brock's company is that a vacation just means you work from somewhere else."

The article points out that this isn't the case in other countries where people actually take vacations and they leave their work behind. One of the findings of a study is that Americans get more satisfaction from work than they do from taking vacations. Yet, doing so, says another study cited in the article, doesn't make our economy more competitive than countries where workers take lots of time off for vacation, such as in Sweden, which mandates that workers take five weeks of vacation each year.

 The second article was also reported on, Little people, lots of pills: Experts debate medicating kids. This article addresses the complicated issue of using behavioral drugs to manage kids. Some of the cases cites speak to severe cases, in which drugs appear to be life-saving. Other cases are about kids with mild behavioral issues. Of course, this is a news article and not a formal study. Yet, it raises awareness of what could be an important issue in our culture.

Saturday, May 21, 2011


Thursdays are "formal" day at St. Margaret's Episcopal School because the students attend chapel. I took these black and white photos using a Canon Rebel Ti 300v film camera. I used 400 ASA film.
Photo & Video Sharing by SmugMug

Sunday, May 15, 2011

UC Berkeley student walks with robotic exoskeleton to get diploma

Austin Whitney is a 2007 graduate of St. Margaret's Episcopal School in San Juan Capistrano, California, where he was one of the students I advised through the college process. Just a few weeks after his high school graduation, Austin slammed his car into a tree. He sustained severe injuries that resulted in losing use of his legs.

I was one of the people who kept vigil at the hospital in the days following the accident.

I continue to stay in touch with Austin and his family.

I saw this story on his university graduation yesterday afternoon while on a flight from the east coast.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

When does change start?

I wrote earlier about my brother's medical incident on Mother's Day. I also mentioned that he is making lifestyle changes that will help him avoid future incidents of this sort.

Of course this entire incident is on my mind, and it's caused a fair amount of anxiety in our family this past week.

Today I thought about the concept of change. I thought that it's best to prepare for challenges in advance. It's a simple concept. For example, I change the oil in my car on a more frequent schedule than recommended because I feel that it's good to do so. I know when I'll have the air-conditioning in my car serviced so that I won't have a problem. Maybe the same principal can be applied to life. Preparing in advance might head off certain catastrophe or unnecessary complications.

When I had this thought, I made a first attempt to jot down some "ground rules" for life that can facilitate change for improving how I live,  and help avoid unnecessary crises.

Here goes:
  1. Realize that other people don’t have to live up to my standards of “perfection.”  Cut them some slack.
  2. Bullies make people feel badly. Don’t be a bully.
  3. Hydrate.
  4. Do good and thorough work because it’s the right thing to do; doing so makes best use of my gifts and talents.
  5. Exercise regularly and see my doctors (medical, eye and dentist) on schedule.
  6. De-clutter.
  7. Listen carefully before speaking.
  8. Make lists and use them.
  9. Eat more salads.
  10. Practice being generous.
  11. Follow through on commitments.
  12. Nurture good friendships.
  13. Read good books.
  14. Be spontaneous, loosen up and take risks.
  15. Pray.
  16. Think about things that matter.
  17. Live a life that reflects my belief in the eternal.
  18. Use my time at work well, and leave before I’m too tired to do things that are good for me, such as exercise, play, and spending time with family and friends.
  19.  Plan times to unplug and really do it.
  20. Admit when I'm wrong and own up to my screw-ups.
 I'll revisit these ground rules from time to time and edit them. But I think that this represents a good start.

Thursday, May 12, 2011

This week has been challenging

There's a reason I've not posted since Sunday.

This was a challenging week that is just now showing some light. I was taking pictures at the beach on Sunday afternoon when I got a call from my aunt that my brother was in the hospital in Houston for what was termed a "mini" stroke.

It all began Mother’s Day morning when he called our aunt to wish her "Happy Mother's Day" and he couldn't form the words. Later, he felt dizzy while standing. He did go to the hospital right away where a CT scan was done, which ruled out other possible concerns, such as a tumor. He had an MRI on Monday, which did not come up with damage to the brain. He had no paralysis, although he has somewhat slurred speech. On Monday morning he felt weak using his left arm. He was released from the hospital yesterday, and he has already begun therapy to strengthen his left arm and to rehabilitate his speech.

It seems that the use of over the counter cold medications might have contributed to this event.

Of course, the past few days have been challenging for my sister and me, and for our family. I was extremely anxious for the first part of this week.

While things are still unsettled, and it's difficult to hear the change in my brother's speech pattern, the prospects for his full recovery are very bright. Also, I think that this will be wake-up for him to make some changes in his lifestyle that will serve as preventative to this type of event happening again.

To be honest, it's also prompted me to review my lifestyle, which is also a good thing.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Does anyone else care about this?

Friends from the UK were in California last week. They connected the 4-day Easter holiday and the Royal Wedding holiday with a few vacation days and took a 10-day spring vacation.

I shared with them my post about ethical eating and lamented how difficult it is to find ethically raised food in the United States. I also complained about the difficulty in knowing how the food I buy is raised. Their comment was, simply, all the beef in the UK is grass-fed. That’s the norm.

I was left trying to figure out how those of us in the United States gave away decisions on how food is raised to corporations and government food programs. It doesn’t make sense to me. It makes even less sense when I think about the health crisis in the United States and health care costs. Isn’t anyone connecting this to how our food is raised?

I went to Henry’s Market yesterday. Henry’s is part of Whole Foods, the “healthy” alternative to the grocery market. Henry’s had one very small section of the meat section with grass-fed beef. And, even at Henry’s, it was difficult figuring out which of the chicken products were free-range raised.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Ethical Consumerism: Morality at the market

It may have started when my friend Nicole Leimbach encouraged me to buy cage-free eggs. Prior to that I hadn't thought much about which eggs I purchased.

One thing led to another and I've begun to look more seriously into ethical issues surrounding the foods I buy.

I’m following CNN’s Freedom Project this year, which details modern day slavery, a practice that fuels some food-producing industries. Just before Valentine's Day 60 Minutes ran a segment on unpaid child labor in the production of cocoa, the raw product that goes into making chocolate.

I’m taking more time reading labels at the grocery store in an attempt to understand where the food I buy comes from. However, it’s difficult to get that information. As an example, finding free range meats is almost impossible in most neighborhood grocery stores. And, as a chocolate-lover, it’s hard determining which chocolates are fair trade or ethical trade. I’ve also found that I can’t assume that chains like Trader Joe’s or Whole Foods stock products that meet my rising ethical standards.

I’m to the point of using my smart phone to search out information while standing in the grocery store aisles.

I discovered Knowmore.Org while doing a search on Endangered Species chocolate. I noticed that some of their chocolates were Fair Trade certified, and others were not. I wanted to “know more.” Knowmore is a good resource that goes beyond the grocery store and posts on other products as well.

It appears that some grocers use terms “natural” or “vegetarian fed” to describe chickens and beef, but these are not the same terms as free-roaming or grass-fed.

This may seem like a lot to do about nothing to most people. However, it is important to think about actions that affect the ethical treatment of people, animals and the environment.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Feeding the Hungry, Nourishing the Soul

CNN posted a powerful and challenging video that highlights a man who didn't become numb when seeing suffering surrounding him.

Here's a link to the video: Feeding the hungry, nourishing the soul.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

I'm on a college wait list, what should I do?

You're correct in thinking that colleges placed a lot of applicants on wait lists this year. Here are actionable points to consider. Keep in mind that most colleges do not "rank" their wait lists. If space becomes available, colleges will consider admitting students who are interested in them.

Be thoughtful about pursuing admission to a college that placed you on the wait list. Think about if it's worth the effort. Many students who talk to me about wait list options weren't seriously interested in College X until the college teased them a wait list offer. The college is suddenly appealing because it's playing hard to get. In most cases, the student has been admitted to five or more colleges, but the other college lose their glow in light of the one that seems almost within grasp.

The fact is, this process has gone on for a long time and has dominated your entire senior year. It may be that the healthiest thing to do is to declare the process over. One course of action is to select a college you've been admitted to, tell all your friends that you've committed, join the newly formed Facebook group and meet other kids who are going to that college.

If you've decided that what I just said is crazy talk and you do decide to stay on wait list, I recommend being above board and ethical in the entire admissions process, particularly when communicating with colleges about your interest in the wait list.

Once you have heard from all of the colleges on your list, choose one college you’ll attend from among those that have accepted you. You should weigh this decision carefully. When you have chosen a college from among your acceptances, you need to reserve your place at the college by the May 1 reply date. Remember that you can only reserve a spot at ONE college. After May 1 colleges that do not hear from you in the affirmative will give your spot to someone on the wait list, so understand that you must reserve a spot by May 1. You should not expect to hear back about wait list offers until after May 1. If you're admitted to a college from the wait list, you will lose the deposit you put in at the college you selected on May 1.

Independent of deciding where to deposit on May 1, you need to decide whether you would rather attend the college that waitlisted you IF you were offered an acceptance. If you believe that you would, you should remain on the waitlist, following the steps outlined below.

NOTE: As a courtesy, you should notify colleges that fall lower on your list that you will not be attending. That will allow those colleges to get a handle on enrollment earlier rather than later and possibly offer that spot to someone on the wait list.
As soon as possible, respond to the college’s wait list offer. Follow up with a letter to the college in which you:
    1. Affirm your interest in attending the college.
    2. Respectfully express your disappointment at not being accepted;
    3. Make clear your appreciation that the admissions committee extended you a place on the wait list;
    4. State why you think the college is the right place for you;
    5. Say what you think you can contribute to the college community, i.e., it’s life, activities, etc.;
    6. If you can say so honestly, point out that you are continuing to work hard in the second semester, if your third quarter grades were better than your first semester grades, tell them so; be specific;
    7. Share details of anything new in your life— think about spring activities, whether you are working on something in the arts, whatever you may already have lined up for this summer, etc. If you have won any special recognition since applying;
    8. Declare that if accepted, you will come (remember, however, that you cannot ethically make such a promise to more than one college);
    9. Thank the college in advance for giving you serious consideration in the event that they are able to use their wait list.
  1. Determine with your counselor whether you should ask another teacher to write a recommendation for you, i.e., someone who has not previously written. If another teacher does write for you, the letter should be mailed aound April 15.
  2. Determine with your counselor whether a teacher who has already written for you might write again, reaffirming his or her support for you. Again, the letter should be mailed close to April 15.
  3. Discuss with your counselor the possibility of having someone who knows you and has a relationship with the college, e.g., an alumnus of the institution, write on your behalf. Once again—to be mailed by April 15.
  4. Note that all of the steps up to this point are meant to support your candidacy. There is nothing wrong with presenting several pieces of support. In a way, this is a new admission season—a new chance to convince them that you are THE ONE. Remember that your application was mailed in November or January and there might be additional information that you would like the college to know about you as they finalize their first year class.
  5. You may want to explore whether the college has alternative kinds of admission plans—one popular one is called January admit (meaning that you would sit out the first semester). Let the college know if you're willing to enter mid year.
  6. Keep in mind that the most important thing you can do at this point is present the college with attractive academic credentials. SO...
  8. While you may pursue wait list options at multiple colleges, do not tell more than one college at a time that it is your “first” choice. (“First choice” preference may change. Please discuss this with your college counselor.
  9. Do not be obnoxious. Be thoughtful about every contact you have with the college. Pestering the college with unnecessary contact ("I'm just checking in") is a bad idea.

  1. Ascertain as soon as possible (early May) whether the college will be using its waitlist and when you can expect to hear what your status is
  2. Promote your cause in writing and/or by telephone, calling the college's attention especially to improvements (if any) in your academic performance.
  3. You must keep your counselor informed of your entire admissions picture so that he or she can best support you.
Offers of admission to waitlisted students are sometimes made by phone, sometimes by mail, sometime by e-mail. The college will expect a quick decision if you’re moved from the waitlist; they want to move quickly to fill the space.

As you digest all the information that you will receive in the next few weeks, be sure to stay in close contact with your college counselor. This process can extend beyond your high school graduation until one of these three things happen:

  1. You get in
  2. You decide that you're no longer interested
  3. The college notifies you that the wait list is closed.

Friday, April 1, 2011

Why is it so hard to get into a "good" college?

Although I’ve changed the names and substituted “like” colleges, here is the text of an e-mail I received around this time some years back from a student's parent at one of the schools I've worked at:
Todd is completely devastated that he was not accepted into any of his top choices (Trinity, Lafayette, Hamilton, Colgate, and Georgetown). At this point, he has no interest in going to any of his "safe" schools, and I do not know if you have any suggestions on how to handle this. I know he had the numbers for a couple of these schools; do you have any idea what happened? I do not know if he has notified you, and if/when he does, I trust that you will not mention that I wrote to you, but I just need some direction. I followed your advice about staying out of the application process, but I need your help now. Todd was out of town until last night so he received all his denials then; not even a defer or wait list. Since he is truly reeling, I am letting him sleep this morning so I do not know when/if he will be at school today.   
Sincerely, Joyce Green
This e-mail has most of the elements of conversations I have with parents when their children aren’t admitted to a “top” university. The conversation becomes more animated when someone else’s child is admitted to a desirable college university. That’s when the comparisons begin and the student who gets a better prize is whittled down to a pile of imperfections by the parent of the offended student. The college process has failed.

I get it. It’s hard for parents to watch their children come in second or third. It’s particularly hard in the affluent demographic that I work with at the private schools I’ve worked at.

Today’s New York Times posted a series of timely articles. One of the articles,  Colleges Love to Say No  goes through why colleges work so hard to attract large applicants pools and then turn down so many candidates. I keyed in on one of the comments that was right on target,
I think we adults collectively owe our young people an apology for trading their sanity for our bragging rights. College admission is supposed to be the beginning of young adulthood, so admission to a selective college merely gains a young person the opportunity to prepare for the remainder of the adult life at one particular place rather than another. As the father of college-bound sons, it is all too easy for me to think (wrongly) that the colleges to which my own son was admitted reflect on the quality of my parenting. In fact, the truth is rather the opposite. I happened to go on an MIT campus tour a few weeks ago, just to see how the place had changed since I had been there. Obviously, students weren’t marching around protesting the Vietnam War. What hadn’t changed, though, was the seriousness of purpose. Ironically enough, such people are least likely to be distracted by an adverse college admissions decision; they would just find somewhere else to follow their passion.
Early in the college process, I jokingly comment in talks with parents that their child’s college admissions results aren’t a referendum on the quality of their gene pool. Or, I may twist it and say that parents shouldn’t make students feel that they’ve failed the gene pool if they’re not admitted to an Ivy League college or Stanford or MIT. Few parents get the point.

In my many years in the business of college counseling, I’ve found that disappointed parents don’t want to be reasoned with. They really want someone to be mad at. The usual target, or weak link, is the secondary school - especially if the child attends a private school that charges a hefty tuition. 

The reasoning is that the child has done everything right, and the college is perfect (which is the reason so many students apply and want to attend) - thus, the only weak link in this seemingly simple equation is the school counselor – someone wrote a poor recommendation, or gave the child misleading information on editing his essays.

Actually, in many cases, the applicant isn't a compelling candidate for a particular college - but that's not something that parents want to hear when they're disappointed. Another reasonable point that doesn't make sense to anyone who hasn't worked in highly selective admissions, like I have is that college admissions is designed to serve the college. Period. It’s all about the college and the college’s institutional priorities.  Colleges admit the students they want to admit. Those are the rules of engagement.

Does this mean that normal, good, smart kids who aren't athletes, or rich,or Nobel prize winners can't get into a highly selective college? In many cases, yes. The fact is, college admissions is complicated and highly nuanced stuff. It's also not a process that can be mastered by even the most meticulous planning. I'll address that reality with more detail in subsequent posts. 

I love my job. I enjoy working with students and their parents. I enjoy seeing students work hard and achieve their goals. This is a difficult time of the year for most people who do what I do. Yet I just sent in my contract signing up for another year. I’ll most likely do the same next year, and the year after that, and the year after that. Even though I might get the blame at the end of the process, I’ll still encourage students to dream big. I’ll also be the voice of reason when need be, even when my advice isn’t welcome.  And I’ll continue to write killer letters that recommend my students to the best colleges and universities in the world.

But, back to the original subject of this post: disappointed parents in the selective college process.

What's going on here? I think is pretty simple. These are parents who have always "made things" happen for their kids. The college application process is the first time when these parents are powerless to "close the deal" for their kids. At their private schools, these parents are able to get what they want from teachers, school administrators and coaches. However, the colleges are in charge when students apply to college.
College admission offices are poweful and annonymous places that make their own rules.  This is mysterious and uncomfortable territory for parents and students alike. This places powerful people in the role of supplicants. It's a humble place to find oneself. Yet, that is the way it is

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Flannery O'Connor: The Life You Save May Be Your Own

I have a lot of “favorite” Flannery O’Connor short stories.

Flannery O’Connor’s short story, "The Life You Save May Be Your Own," is included in The Complete Stories
This story is somewhat haunting, possibly because O'Connor freely borrows key images from a number of her other stories. For example, the image of the car as a vehicle of freedom and justification is used in Wise Blood (with its main character Hazel Motes noting that a man with a good car doesn't need salvation); and the notion of Catholicism as a dismissible un-advanced and "old" religion by a character who hasn't the patience to think deeply about spiritual things is used in The Displaced Person and other places. And, as is common, the story includes a widowed woman  with an invalid adult daughter who is unmarried. (It's interesting how often O'Connor uses this image since she was a physically afflicted, unmarried adult daughter living with a widowed mother. It's self-deprecating, perhaps, and brings recognition of her own need for grace to the forefront of her stories.)

I’ll try to explain my on-going response while reading the story. I read the story in two sittings: I started it in the morning and completed it the next evening. This story didn't settle easily with me: it took some thinking before it was "satisfying."

Back to the visceral response: As I began to read the story, I realized that I didn’t know it, which was a nice realization because I’ve re-read so many of Flannery O’Connor’s short stories, I can’t remember all that I’ve read. I was pleased that to be reading something new. As I got into it, I wanted the story to get along. I wanted it to make progress. I had the impatience common to her characters. Also, as I read,  I found that I didn’t care for the two main characters, Tom Shiftlet (which appropriately rhymes with Shiftless , and he is a scoundrel) and Lucynell Carter, the widow-mother who owned the place that Shiftlet happened upon.

I Ididn’t like Shiftlet and I didn’t care for his long-windedness, although that’s a usual characteristic of Flannery O’Connor characters – they cover their brokenness by talking a lot about their all-knowing perspective on the world.

I didn’t like Lucynell Carter because she was scheming and selfish. Clearly she thought highly of herself by giving her daughter the same name, Lucynell Carter.

Sidenote: I think that I wanted the characters to be more humorous. Like the Grandmother in A Good Man Is Hard To Find, I wanted characters that made me laugh. None of the five characters in this story entertained me. I thought that they were uncomfortably odd.

Shiftlet is physically broken. Although he has skills, he is a carpenter and he fixes Lucynell’s car later in the story, he is a one-armed man, who early on in the story stretches out both arms in a way that signals the redemptive nature of where the story is headed: "He swung out both his whole and his short arm up slowly so that they indicated an expanse of sky and his figure formed a crooked cross." But the image is lost on Lucynell and her daughter:
“The old woman watched him with her arms folded across her chest as if she were the owner of the sun, and the daughter watched, her head thrust forward and her fat helpless hands hanging at the wrists.”

The story goes on with Shiftlet making references to deep things that disturb his thinking and that Lucynell thinks are plain foolish. For example, Shiftlet talks about a surgeon in Atlanta who had “taken a knife and cut the human heart” and “studied it like a day-old chicken.” Shiftlet is correct in concluding that the motives of the heart are beyond science. And he makes a reference to European monks who sleep in coffins, a reference O’Connor borrows from a James Joyce story, “The Dead,” but again the reference is lost on Lucynell who responds that “they wasn’t as advanced as we are.”

Later Lucynell has Shiftlet marry her daughter in a civil ceremony. But, although it’s "legal," it’s not satisfying to Shiftlet even though it “satisfies the law” as Lucynell tells him. Shiftlet responds that “it’s the law that doesn’t satisfy” him – which expresses a deeper spiritual need that he is currently not aware of.

There’s so much more to the story that I won’t cover here. Shiftlet immediately abandons his legally new wife in a café called The Hot Spot – where he feels more uncomfortable, and later he picks up a boy (note: good deed to cover up guilt and sin), a hitchhiker, who quickly recognizes Shiftlet as a moral liar and calls Shiftlet’s bluff on his waxing and jumps out of Shiftlet's car in disgust. (Hint: The boy becomes the vehicle of grace in the story.)

I like reading Flannery O'Connor stories because they're like a mirror to the soul. I find it impossible to read these stories and not to think about how authentically or in-authentically the characters live their lives. Thus, these stories prompt me to think about deeper issues in my own life.

I hope that you’ll read this story. If so, let me know how you respond to The Life You Save May Be Your Own.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Join the Club and a Fourth Place

I heard an interview today with MacArthur and Putlizer Prize winner Tina Rosenberg on her book Join the Club: How Peer Pressure Can Transform the World. Rosenberg explores the positive role peer-pressure plays in bringing about social change. In the interview she talks about old ways of teaching, take for example the importance of an individual better health practices, often fail, but social pressure from peers can effectively foster change.

Hearing this interview fit perfectly with something else I've been thinking about - the Internet as a Fourth Place for community building, aligning with the three other anchor places for social interaction: home, work and community spaces, such as bars, coffeehouses, community parks and the like.

The Internet as "fourth place" allows a person to form a community of ideas that may not be readily available in one's geographic community. In a sense, the Internet created social interaction in the Middle East in recent months to bring together young activists that effectively changed governments. This is radical stuff. However, more intimately, there are social communities and societies gathering on the Internet that provide people a sense of community they might otherwise lack.

I'm inspired by bloggers and individuals who live passionately and who have big ideas. Over time these people create a community of readers who interact together on the Internet and share common interests.

These are people such as Chris Guillebeau and his motivation to master the art of non-conformity. Or Joel Runyon, who encourages people to do impossible things. And, Steve Kamb, whose Nerd Fitness site shares straight-forward tips on fitness, diet and life.

More recently I've been particularly inspired and energized by Hudson Taylor, a former All-American wrestler at the University of Maryland and wrestling coach at Columbia University. Hudson created Athlete Ally, an organization that inspires athletes to actively confront homophobia in their sports. He's put a video "playbook" on YouTube to give athletes tips on how to be allies in preserving the dignity of LGBT/questioning youth. Joining the community that supports the ideas and mission of Athlete Ally is making me aware of a social issue that I cared about but didn't know how to address. Now I have a resource to share with the students at my school. This came about through interacting with an Internet community. I feel part of the Athlete Ally community, and I'm inspired to action, even though I've not met a single member.

There are fourth place Internet communities organized around endless themes. The impact, however, is the same: people are able to find a "place" to connect with ideas that inspire them to accomplish things that they might not otherwise do on their own.

Perhaps my recognition of the Internet as a "fourth place" isn't original. Regardless, I like feeling that I'm part of communities that inspire me. This really is "social networking" even if I never meet the people who inspire me and help change my life for the better.

Monday, March 28, 2011


Monastic building in a small village.

I'll share my art with you from time to time. 

I hear the snickers across the Internet waves.  Yeah - this is what I call art - and it's MY art. True, I'm not trained and I'm certianly not a "natural." Nevertheless, I enjoy the creative process. This is one of only two actual "drawings" I have available. The few others surving pieces of my art are  paintings.

I posted this sketch to make a point. I was am, in essence, learning to draw. You'll notice that it took a couple of attempts to get the steeple set up properly. And, the front entry had to be redone. The first attempts at getting both on paper went askew. As I recall, I did this drawing as an attempt at teaching myself to express perspective. I am fascinated that lines can be put together to represent a point of view. 

Now, where am I going with this? I'm not sure. However, I have an "add on" story to tell.

This drawing is an imagined scene of a country village that is home to a monastic community. This is the monastery, or perhaps the abbey. (There is a difference, but I won't explain that here.)

I've been to a few monastic communities. Two stand out. The first is the Abbey of Gethsemani near Bardstown, Kentucky. The other is the Assumption Abbey in Richardton, North Dakota.  My visit to Gethsemani was for a few hours; I stayed at Assumption for close to a week.

Even though the lenght of my stay varied between the abbeys, I left both profoundly affected. I found both abbeys to be contemplative - that's by design and purpose. I also found the monks at both abbeys to be some of the funniest (humor) people I've met. They live quiet lives, but those I interacted with at each abbey were engaging and energetic.

Abbeys are interesting places because most monks live at the same abbey for the remainder of their lives once they enter the community. The point is that the aspirations of monks is pretty simple: doing the daily labor of the abbey and living a life that revolves around the hours of prayer.

I took part in the cycle of prayer at each abbey, and I observed the daily labor at Assumption that involved baking, cooking, gardening, building maintenace and the like.

Getting back to the original theme of this post, retreating to a monastic community slows life down in a way that encourages forming perspective. I went to Assumption during a time when I was personally troubled. Spending time in a new place, a desolate place (North Dakota!), living and praying with strangers, who quickly became friends, provided a peaceful and beautiful respite.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Just Before Sunset

I thought I'd share a bit of my every day life in southern Orange County, California since I spend quite a bit of time at the beach, particularly at the end of the work day.

This video is in Dana Point, just behind Ocean Institute.

View Larger Map

Shock, Awe and Grace

I've thought about this before.

Suffering, calamity, misfortune, crime, hatred, ignorance – these realities abound in the world and fill the headlines.

When natural disasters occur, news vendors rush to count the dead. I fear that the news of intense events is creating a numbing effect in many. I don’t place blame. This is the way life is. Shock is hard to take, especially when it is often repeated. People look for relief from bad news in order to keep going.  

However, there is another view of shock.

Flannery O'Connor talked about "shock" as an instrument for instruction in her writing. Shock is often the vehicle of grace in O’Connor’s short stories that causes a character to examine her life and to make a change that leads to living a more authentic life. As O'Connor put it, “To the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost-blind you draw large and startling figures.”

Flannery O'Connor had the sense that biblical parables were meant to shock with the intention of affecting the quality of how the hearers heard the stories.

Mystery and Manners: Occasional Prose

Yet the question remains, what happens when people are numb to shock? Do they stop examining their lives? What happens to life, values, personal growth, caring and love when the shock of tragedy is no longer tragic, but commonplace "ho-hum" events? Do we hum “So it goes” along with Vonnegut’s Billy Pilgrim character in Slaughterhouse-five?

Slaughterhouse-Five: A Novel

In one of Flannery O’Connor’s more famous short stories, The Artificial Nigger, the grandfather character denies that he knows his grandson and is forgiven by the child, which bring the grandfather to point of shock and grace. The story goes, “He stood appalled, judging himself with the thoroughness of God, while the action of mercy covered his pride like a flame and consumed it. He had never thought himself a great sinner before but he saw now his true depravity had been hidden from him lest it cause him despair. He realized that he was forgiven for sins from the beginning of time, when he had conceived in his own heart the sin of Adam, until the present, when he had denied poor Nelson. He saw that some sin was too monstrous for him to claim as his own, and since God loved in proportion as He forgave, he felt ready at that instant to enter Paradise.”

Perhaps sad events in the world should shock us to the realization of grace and beyond – to a place where bad news does dull our senses, but rather awakens them to care even more deeply for those who suffer.

The Complete Stories

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Hudson Taylor: Athlete Ally

Wrestling coach Hudson Taylor started Athlete Ally.

Mr. Taylor's effort is important and timely, particularly as there is national awareness of bullying and teasing of LGBTQ/questioning youth. I'm sensitive to this, as an educator and as a person of faith who believes in affirming the dignity of all.

Here's an interview with Taylor describing Athlete Ally.

Lisa or Eddie

I haven't read Andrew Ferguson's Crazy U, but I did read his article "How to get your kid into the Ivy League," which was published in the March 18, 2011 issue of The Week.

Crazy U: One Dad's Crash Course in Getting His Kid Into College

I read stuff like this all the time because "getting kids into the Ivy League" is what I do for a living. Or, at least that was people think/hope I do.

Actually, I'm a former admissions officer who worked at two hyper-selective and desirable universities. I'll post more on that later.

My take-away from Ferguson's article is at the end when he says that the highly competitive admissions process forces kids to eschew being Lisa Simpson. Rather, in applying to college, applicants become charmers, like the character Eddie Haskell in Leave It to Beaver.

I see it all the time and my heart sinks when a bright student comes into my office to discuss his college essays. He'll read the essay prompt and ask me, "What do they (meaning the college admissions committee) want to hear?"

My response to that question is, "What do you want to tell them?" That question usually draws a blank, hopeless stare from the student because like so many, the student sitting across the desk from me has spent his high school years trying to figure out "what looks good" to colleges. Thus, at the crucial point of applying to college, he has no idea what he thinks about anything.

Yes, there are exceptions. I do have some "Lisa Simpsons" coming in to chat. These are the students who get in to the Ivy League. The "Lisa's" aren't looking over their shoulders attempting to figure out their next move by imitating what others are doing. These students have passions and ideas; they have lively minds and are in possession of intellectual vitality. Not only do they read books and complete assignments and participate in class discussions and do interesting things outside the classroom, thinking about what things means comes naturally to these students.

Therein lies the difference between Lisa Simpson and Eddie Haskell.