The Spirit of Our Institutions

Mt. Rushmore, June 25, 2014

Happy Washington’s Birthday.

When I was young, we did not celebrate the generic “Presidents Day.”  Instead, we attached the names of real men – flawed but great, each in his own ways – in celebrating first Lincoln’s Birthday on February 12th, followed shortly by Washington’s Birthday on February 22nd.  I am pretty sure – growing up in the South – that we were not given a day-off from school on the 12th, but we did generally receive the 22nd off…even if it was smack in the middle of the week.

There is an interesting history to this holiday, beginning with its name and including the story of how it was moved to the third Monday in February.  According to the federal government, what we celebrate today is officially Washington’s Birthday.  But states actually decide which federal holidays to celebrate, and they can also rename them.  So in Maryland, where I live, we celebrate Presidents Day.

I’m a bit old-fashioned and like my holidays well defined and not simply an occasion to get an extra-long weekend and a great deal on a mattress.  (Not that I mind the long weekend.) Arguably Washington and Lincoln are our two greatest presidents, and – of course – the National Trust has properties with ties to both (Woodlawn and President Lincoln’s Cottage).  While I don’t subscribe to the great man theory of history, I do believe in the power of leaders to help shape narrative, both lead and follow popular will, and make decisions that can chart the course of nations. Both Washington and Lincoln understood and used the power of narrative.

Washington was a singular figure in the American revolution, the “indispensable man” as described by historian James Thomas Flexner.  More than any other, he helped shape some of the norms of our national government.  When he warned that we should “Guard against the impostures of pretended patriotism,” Washington’s words have relevance in almost every political climate experienced by this county.  Yet they also speak to a need to understand our own motivations.

Lincoln Memorial

Lincoln Memorial

Lincoln, of course, was a quote machine.  The best storyteller to ever occupy the presidency, his letters and speeches provide a rich context to some of the darkest days of our nation. As in all great leaders, Lincoln’s words resonate across different times, various political climates, and touch on our responsibilities as both individuals and as members of a larger community.  One letter he wrote prior to his election as president spoke to me in today’s times. In that letter he said, “Understanding the spirit of our institutions to aim at the elevation of men, I am opposed to whatever tends to degrade them.”

The elevation of our fellow travelers on this journey of life is a noble aim – individually and as members of a global community.

Happy (belated) Lincoln’s Birthday.  Happy (anticipatory) Washington’s Birthday.  Have a great week.

More to come…


Those Who Do Not Know Their History…

Panama Hotel

Seattle’s Panama Hotel

The recent executive order temporarily banning travel from seven predominantly Muslim countries brings to many minds an earlier, ugly incident from American history.  As is often the case, those who do not know their history are destined to repeat it.

An op-ed in yesterday’s New York Times spoke to this earlier, discriminatory ban.  When Lies Overruled Rights tells the story of the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II.

Seventy-five years ago on Sunday, under President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Executive Order 9066, all people of Japanese ancestry living on the West Coast were forced to leave their homes and report to incarceration camps. Two-thirds were American citizens. Fred Korematsu, my father, then 23, refused to go. A proud and loyal citizen, he had tried to enlist in the National Guard but was rejected and was wrongly fired from his job as a welder in an Oakland, Calif., shipyard He was arrested and tried for defying the executive order. Upon conviction, he was held in a horse stall at a hastily converted racetrack until he and his family were moved to a desolate camp in Topaz, Utah. My father told me later that jail was better than the camp.

He appealed his conviction to the Supreme Court. In his case, and in cases brought by Minoru Yasui and Gordon Hirabayashi — among the most infamous cases in American legal history — the court in 1944 upheld the executive order. Justice Frank Murphy vehemently opposed the majority decision, writing in a dissenting opinion, “Racial discrimination in any form and in any degree has no justifiable part whatever in our democratic way of life.” In the hysteria of war and racialized propaganda, my father’s citizenship did not protect him. For him and the 120,000 other Japanese-Americans incarcerated during World War II, there was no attempt to sort the loyal from the disloyal.

The entire op-ed is worth a read.  And I’m pleased to note that the National Trust has been working to save one of the places that tells the stories associated with the Japanese-American experience: the Panama Hotel.

Japanese Bath

Japanese Bath at the Panama Hotel

The Panama Hotel, an early 20th century five story brick structure, is an outstanding example of the single-room occupancy hotels that characterize Seattle’s pre-World War II Nihonmachi (Japantown). Constructed in 1910 and designed by Seattle’s first Japanese American architect, Sabro Ozasa, the structure, building design, materials and uses are remarkably intact. The basement includes the Hashidate Yu, the best surviving example in the U.S. of an urban Japanese-style bath house or sento. Also, in the basement is a large storage area containing the belongings of Japanese Americans incarcerated in World War II as well as remnants of the early operations of this commercial building.

Bath House sign

Bath House sign

The Panama Hotel is a place that speaks to the true resilience of the American spirit. It is a poignant place that reminds us of what happens when lies and fear take precedent over our constitutional rights. This is a historic place as relevant today as it was 70+ years ago.

More to come…


Quest for the Best (Picture) – Part 3

Film ReelEarlier this week Candice and I saw the fourth of this year’s Best Picture nominees.  Manchester by the Sea is both a tragic story and a well-crated, artful movie.  It is very much a deserving nominee for the Oscar for Best Picture of the year.

The script is the first star here, in that the movie tells a story full of flashbacks and dreams that let the story unfold at a pace that is never rushed yet seems appropriately paced.  Lee Chandler – played masterfully by Casey Affleck – returns to his hometown after his brother Joe dies of heart failure.  He quickly learns that Joe has made him the guardian of his 16-year-old son, Patrick, played by Lucas Hedges.  The relationship of Lee and Patrick could normally be seen as sharing a common grief – if from different perspectives – but as the movie unfolds it becomes clearer that Lee’s grief is much deeper and longer, and is sparked by a return to a town he had to leave in order to live.

There is a great deal to unpack in this movie.  First of all, it takes the viewer seriously.  This movie looks at the lingering – perhaps never-ending – affects of unspeakable tragedy, and accepts that neatly tied bows are for sit-coms, not life.  However, there is also a good bit of humor in this movie.  One reviewer noted that Lee and Patrick – for all the awkwardness in their relationship – make a great comedy team.  There were numerous times when our audience was laughing out loud – appropriately – at the short comments that punctuate the dialogue.  Heck, just watching Lee learn of – and then try and negotiate – Patrick’s two simultaneous romantic relationships is a mini-comedy in and of itself.

As Candice and I drove home from seeing Manchester-by-the-Sea, we commented on the Irish-Catholic overlay to this movie.  In reflection, part of the tragedy of the story is the loss of exceptionalism felt by the white male.  That the prerogatives of the white male exists can easily be seen in Lee’s ordeal at the Manchester police station.  This line of thinking is developed more fully in A.O. Scott’s review of the movie for the New York Times, and this element helps make the movie relevant in this day and age.

Manchester-by-the-Sea is a tragic story, but a movie well worth seeing.

So now with the fourth movie under our belt, here’s my (always changing) ranking:

1A.  Hidden Figures

1B.  Manchester-by-the-Sea

3.  Moonlight

4.  La La Land

We are hoping to catch a couple more before Candice heads out of town…and I’ll be left to my own devices to watch what’s left.

In any event, this is shaping up to be a great group of Best Picture nominees.

More to come…


Habits Are Not Destiny

The Power of Habit

The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg

“Most of the choices we make each day may feel like the products of well-considered decision making, but they’re not.  They’re habits.”  That’s according to Charles Duhigg, author of The Power of Habit:  Why we Do What We Do in Life and Business.

I got to thinking about the habits that we undertake while reflecting on the discussions from a recent management team retreat.  We were probing how and why we do certain things to see if there were routines – or habits – we wanted to break or establish.

Scientists tell us that habits emerge because our brains are looking for ways to save effort.  We all can identify habits – both personal and professional – that impact our lives.  Just as we have good and bad personal habits, organizations have good and bad routines.  We want to avoid habits that turn important decision-making over to a process that occurs “without actually thinking,” but at the same time we want to build routines that support our goals and aspirations.

Thankfully, habits and routines can be changed.  They aren’t destiny, to quote Duhigg again.  At their most basic, habits include “cues, routines, and rewards.”  Once we recognize the cycle – and understand that we can change the routine to override a bad habit – we can decide to change it.  But we have to make that conscious decision.

I’ll end with a short story that Duhigg uses to illustrate his point:

“The way we habitually think of our surroundings and ourselves create the worlds that we each inhabit. ‘There are two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says ‘Morning boys. How’s the water? … And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes, ‘What the hell is water?’’

The water is habits, the unthinking choices and invisible decisions that surround us every day – and which, just by looking at them, become visible again.”

As we begin the new year working on New Year’s resolutions and strategic plans, this might be a good time to consider which habits and routines are holding us back and need attention.

Have a good week.

More to come…


The Priorities in Life

WHen Breath Becomes Air

When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi

I have read two books recently where I could simply and honestly say, “You should read this.”  The second of the two, which I finished reading Saturday morning, seemed to be the appropriate one where I should sit down and capture my thoughts immediately.

When Breath Becomes Air by Dr. Paul Kalanithi has been on the New York Times Bestseller list and was a top book of 2016 on many lists.  There’s a reason.  This is a book where, as the Times reviewer noted, “Finishing this book and then forgetting about it is simply not an option.”

Paul Kalanithi was a neurosurgeon and writer who – at age 36 and near the end of residency training at Stanford – was diagnosed with stage IV lung cancer.  This memoir is his look at confronting death with all the knowledge of a top-trained doctor and all the uncertainty of a human being who imagined a whole life of promise in front of him.

Kalanithi studied English literature, human biology and philosophy before turning to a decade of medical school training.  A classic seeker and striver, he was asking the essential questions of life and death while reading literature, seeking answers in words. Then he turned to the real time grappling with life and death that doctors face every day.

The first half of the book explains how he reached that point, of how he fought the idea of becoming a doctor because of his cardiologist father’s absences from his family while Paul was growing up.  Paul’s search was for “what makes life meaningful?”  He eventually turns to the medical profession, which would “allow me a chance to find answers that are not in books, to find a different sort of sublime, to forge relationships with the suffering, and to keep following the question of what makes human life meaningful, even in the face of death and decay.”

At the end of this section entitled “In Perfect Health I Begin,” Kalanithi writes about the suicide of a fellow resident, after a difficult complication in a surgery he is performing.  It is an agonizing segue to the book’s second part, “Cease Not Until Death.”

“Most lives are lived with passivity toward death—it’s something that happens to you and those around you.  But Jeff and I had trained for years to actively engage with death, to grapple with it, like Jacob and the angel, and, in so doing, to confront the meaning of a life.  We had assumed an onerous yoke, that of mortal responsibility.  Our patients’ lives and identities may be in our hands, yet death always wins.  Even if you are perfect, the world isn’t.  The secret is to know that the death is stacked, that you will lose, that your hands or judgment will slip, and yet still struggle to win for your patients.  You can’t ever reach perfection, but you can believe in an asymptote toward which you are ceaselessly striving.”

Where the book’s first half looks unflinchingly at the challenges of being a neurosurgeon, Part II takes an equally direct look at facing death.  Especially facing death at a time where one’s whole life and promise is still assumed to lie ahead.

There are many brave and wise souls who show up in Kalanithi’s inevitable march.  Chief among them is his lung cancer oncologist, Emma Hayward.  As the doctor overseeing Kalanithi’s treatment, she shows up throughout the story.  But to Kalanithi, her gentle but persistent questions about what really mattered to him and his family, knowing that would change on a regular basis as they faced death, was key.  In a 2014 interview for a Stanford Medical Journal, Kalanithi explained this important aspect of the work of the oncologist:

“Patients are bombarded with well-meaning advice, from dietary recommendations to holistic therapy to cutting-edge research. It can easily occupy all a patient’s time, when you ought to also spend time thinking about the priorities in your life (emphasis mine). Physicians can also advise patients, as my dad would insist, that they can stop skipping dessert.”

In his beautiful yet straightforward prose, Kalanithi writes about hope in light of medical statistics, and he notes that “It occurred to me that my relationship with statistics changed as soon as I became one.”

There are many elements of the story of Paul and his wife Lucy’s journey worth mentioning.  Especially touching is their decision to have a child, who is born eight months before Paul dies.  The book is dedicated to Cady – that child – and Kalanithi’s last paragraph is focused on her life and the meaning of her existence.  The epilogue, written by Lucy after Paul’s death, is also heart rendering.  I made sure not to read that on the train, as I knew – accurately – that my eyes would well up with tears that I couldn’t control.

But there is one final segment I want to highlight:  Paul’s faith.  He talks in a straightforward way about his time of doubt, but well before his diagnosis he had returned to his roots in faith.

Paul Kalanithi wrote that although he spent much of his 20s believing in a “material conception of reality” and a “scientific worldview that would grant complete metaphysics” except for “outmoded concepts like souls, God and bearded white men,” he found a problem.

“The problem, however, eventually became evident: to make science the arbiter of metaphysics is to banish not only God from the world but also love, hate, meaning — to consider a world that is self-evidently not the world we live in.”

“That is not to say that if you believe in meaning you must also believe in God,” he added. “It is to say, though, that if you believe that science provides no basis for God, then you are almost obligated to conclude that science provides no basis for meaning and, therefore, life itself doesn’t have any. In other words, existential claims have no weight; all knowledge is scientific knowledge.”

This is a wonderful book.  But Kalanithi would not expect us to find all the answers here. Just like Emma, his voice comes through this book, saying, “You have to figure out what’s most important to you.”

“In the end, it cannot be doubted that each of us can see only a part of the picture.  The doctor sees one, the patient another, the engineer a third, the economist a fourth, the pearl driver a fifth, the alcoholic a sixth, the cable guy a seventh, the sheep farmer an eighth, the Indian beggar a ninth, the pastor a tenth.  Human knowledge is never contained in one person.  It grows from the relationships we create between each other and the world, and still it is never complete.”

Just read it.

More to come…


Quest for the Best Picture (2016), Part 2

Film ReelAfter this weekend, Candice and I are one-third of the way towards our annual goal of viewing all the “Best Picture” Oscar nominees.  We’ve seen three very different films, but all terrific in their own way.

Last weekend we saw Hidden Figures, a wonderful movie with an inspiring story just right for our times.  On Friday we again walked up to AFI Silver Theater, this time to see Moonlight.

This coming of age film was both difficult and yet ultimately very satisfying. I was initially uncomfortable, because I was disoriented by the context.  The story of a young, gay, African American male learning about who he is through the bullying, teasing, and uncertainty was one I could understand. However, the setting – amidst the poverty, racism, and drug culture of Miami – was not familiar.  Once I sorted that out in my mind, I saw the strong qualities of this movie on multiple levels.

The acting is superb, beginning with Mahershala Ali as Juan, the drug dealer who befriends the main character, Chiron, and Naomie Harris as Chiron’s mother Paula. It was also nice to be introduced to Janelle Monáe in the first two films we saw the week, in Moonlight as Teresa and as Mary in Hidden Figures.

Moonlight is a well-crafted film on several levels, and is worth a view.

On Sunday, we decided to go in a different direction and took in La La Land at the nearby Bethesda Row Cinemas.  This film has much to recommend it.  The music is infectious.  The acting – especially Emma Stone – is superb.  The opening musical sequence is incredible – and worth the price of admission.  Do I think it is the year’s best movie?  No.  Do I think it is worth your time?  Absolutely.

So my first ranking looks like this:

  1.  Hidden Figures
  2. Moonlight
  3. La La Land

Two and three are actually interchangeable, and they might change as I see more.  But I think the time is just right, and perhaps even critical, for Hidden Figures.

We have some more to see, so check back!

More to come…


He (or She) Who Hesitates is Not Always Lost

Right or lefgt

Right or left

A couple were riding in their car recently when they approached an intersection and pulled into the right lane in order to make a turn.  Immediately in front of them was a car with the left blinker engaged.  The husband made the comment – with irritation in his voice – “Why does this guy think he can turn left from the right hand lane?”  A few seconds later he looked up, realized that the four-lane street dead-ended into another four-lane road, and that the overhead signage indicated that the right lane could indeed be used for either left or right turns.

Turning to his wife, he pointed to the sign and said, “Never mind.”

His wife, speaking with a tone of voice that reflected more than three decades of patiently waiting for him to observe the obvious, replied, “Several years ago I came to a realization that changed my life.  When I faced a situation where I thought someone was in the wrong,” she said, “I stopped myself from judging them and asked instead ‘What is here that I do not understand?’”  She continued, “That simple change helped me hold back from being too judgmental and sent me down a path of empathy and understanding.”

“Oh,” said the husband, clearly realizing that he needed to think more deeply about his wife’s point of view.

This story came to mind as I was reading about a call for the practice of hesitating.  The author said, “By hesitating, I am not talking about being demure nor about being spineless.  I’m speaking here of reverencing those whom you find alien.”  Every day in both work and our private lives we are called upon to make judgments, including some snap judgments, about people and situations.  Some of that is pragmatic, while some of it occurs on a deeper level.  “We have to make judgment calls about confrontations and interventions.  We must judge when someone has done too much or gone too far…”

By hesitating, by asking ourselves “What is here that I do not understand about this person or this situation?” we encourage ourselves to take a wider, more generous view. And I think that’s a good thing, for there’s almost always more going on than meets the eye…. if we take the time to understand.

Have a good week.

More to come…