Summer Reading 2013, Continued: The Unwinding

Beach Reading 2013American journalist, novelist, and playwright George Packer wrote one of the most insightful works about America’s invasion and occupation of Iraq in his 2005 book The Assassins’ Gate:  America in Iraq. So when I heard that Packer had a new work out on the demise of the American social contract, I quickly picked it up and added it to my summer reading pile.

The Unwinding:  An Inner History of the New America is a very important work by a gifted observer and interpreter of American life.  It is not light summer reading.  Packer’s work can be hard to read – not because it is dense (it is anything but).  The Unwinding is difficult because almost any reader of this work is likely to find someone captured on its pages who represents his or her way of thinking and his or her life, and realizes the sad place we all find ourselves in today.

Packer’s work follows about ten individuals – most not well-known – over the course of the last 30 years, during the time when,

…the coil that held Americans together in its secure and sometimes stifling grip first gave way.  Like any great change, the unwinding began at countless times, in countless ways – and at some moment the country, always the same country, crossed a line of history and became irretrievably different.

Those profiled include a factory worker in the rust belt, a Washington insider, a journalist in Tampa, and a Silicon Valley billionaire.  They come from all sides of the political spectrum, and it is interesting to see how their perspectives change chapter by chapter as time passes on and the institutions around them crumble.  Interspersed with these profiles are short vignettes of some 20 famous people from the past three decades, ranging from Jay-Z to Colin Powell, Alice Waters to Andrew Breitbart, Newt Gingrich to Elizabeth Warren.

The bottom line of Packer’s compelling work:  we’ve left the social compact – the caring for others that once defined America and helped build the world’s most productive middle class – in order to chase individual greed and power.  The monied interests and their helpers in government have forgotten about “We the People” and instead have focused on “I, Me, Mine.” And no where is his aim more devastating – and to my mind more accurate – than in his portrait of Mr. Sam Walton.

Sam Walton grew up a child of the Great Depression and – like many of his generation – developed a penny-pinching habit that he took to extremes. In five devastating pages that are worth the price of the book, Parker takes us through Walton’s career from the Walton 5&10 in Bentonville to the point – after his death – where six of the surviving Waltons would have as much money as the bottom 30 percent of Americans.

Think about that.  Six people have more money than 94 million Americans combined.

Parker’s final paragraph in the Walton profile says it all:

And it was only after his death, after Wal-Mart’s downhome founder was no longer its public face, that the country began to understand what his company had done.  Over the years, America had become more like Wal-Mart.  It had gotten cheap.  Prices were lower, and wages were lower.  There were fewer union factory jobs, and more part-time jobs as store greeters.  The small towns where Mr. Sam had seen his opportunity were getting poorer, which meant that consumers there depended more and more on everyday low prices, and made every last purchase at Wal-Mart, and maybe had to work there, too.  The hollowing out of the heartland was good for the company’s bottom line.  And in parts of the country that were getting richer, on the coasts and in some of the big cities, many consumers regarded Wal-Mart and its vast aisles full of crappy, if not dangerous, Chinese-made goods with horror, and instead purchased their shoes and meat in expensive boutiques as if overpaying might inoculate them against the spread of cheapness, while stores like Macy’s, the bastions of a former middle-class economy, faded out, and America began to look once more like the country Mr. Sam had grown up in.

As I read this well-conceived and well-written literary triumph, I couldn’t help but wonder about my role in the dissolution of the social compact in this country. Isn’t that what works of great moral force should do?  This difficult book needs to be read by everyone – and especially those who have found a way to thrive as our nation frays at the seams.

More to come…

DJB

Listening and the Labyrinth: A Day of Silent Retreat at Dayspring

Lake of the Saints, Photo from Dayspring Retreat Center

Lake of the Saints, Photo from Dayspring Retreat Center

Candice was the final family member to introduce her activity to us in this year’s “plan your own vacation.”  We had spent a wonderful weekend in Pittsburgh to check another ballpark off my bucket list and took in Fallingwater on the way home.  Andrew has now taken us to three of his four ethnic restaurants as he worked to expand our culinary horizons.  (Tonight’s visit to Mike Isabella’s new Greek restaurant Kapnos tops the list in my book…and was the best Greek food I’ve had in quite some time.) We arrived home yesterday from three days at the beach – courtesy of Claire – and threw in an outdoor viewing of Ferris Bueller’s Day Off for good measure.

So the bar was high as Candice took control.

For twelve years, Candice has been a regular participant in Quiet Days and Ember Day silent retreats at Dayspring, a beautiful rural oasis in Montgomery County.  The Retreat Center was begun as a place for Sabbath rest and reflection by the ground-breaking Church of the Saviour, established in Washington, D.C. by Gordon Cosby in the 1940s as an alternative vision of the church.  She always returns home refreshed and revived, and suggested as one of her two vacation activities that the three of us join her for the August Quiet Day.

This morning, Candice, Claire, Andrew and I were among approximately 15 participants in a half-day silent retreat. Candice had bought each of us a new journal and, in addition to lunch, had provided readings on silent retreats, walking the labyrinth, Ember Days, Henri Nouwen, and other topics.  After a short introduction and meditation of poetry and song, the silent retreat began.

Each of us structured our day as we wanted.  Candice only asked that we join her down at the creek during the morning – one of her favorite spots on earth.

After a number of discussions over vacation, I had decided to focus on listening – and to put everything through that prism.  I felt it was an area where I was ripe for growth.

The picture perfect summer weather encouraged us to leave the lodge and travel through meadow, forest, and trails.  At one point I ended up at the Labyrinth.  I’ve read about the spiritual experience of walking the labyrinth, but until this afternoon had never tried it myself.  As the paper Candice provided us noted,

There is no right or wrong way to walk a labyrinth as it is an activity that becomes a metaphor for your unique spiritual journey.  Some people walk with the intention to address an issue in their lives, some walk for healing, others to pray and meditate.  Still others walk simply to open themselves to the presence of the Holy.

I walked with the intention of thinking about listening.  And what I found surprised me.  Having never thought much about the path of a labyrinth, I suppose I expected a more-or-less circular route that bore in towards the center.   But what I discovered was that early in the walk I was near the center, but then looked up a few steps later to find myself out on the edge.  That seemingly random relationship to the center was a key part of the process.  Since there is only one way to walk a labyrinth physically, it dawned on me that my conception of walking along a circular path and getting closer and closer to the center – or the truth, the Holy, or whatever you want to call it – was all wrong.  In thinking about this through the context of listening, I realized that we have to intentionally and continually listen – because our relationship to the center varies so widely along the journey.  It was one more thing to add to my journal of the day as I listened to what my feet and eyes were showing me.

I can’t speak for Andrew and Claire, but I found Candice’s first of two contributions to our family time together to be very meaningful and very rewarding.  Thank you, my love.

More to come…

DJB

Beach Bums and Ferris Bueller…A Perfect Combination

Matching Parents We’ve been beach bums during our staycation for the past three days…and it has been wonderfully relaxing.  A short three-day-two-night jaunt to nearby Bethany Beach, Delaware was Claire’s contribution to the “let the family build a stay-at-home (almost) vacation around activities each wants to do.”

So, what did we do?

Not much.

We laid out on the beach for hours on end, reading, enjoying the breezes, and getting up for an occasional Kohr Brothers frozen custard cone.  (Make mine vanilla, dipped in chocolate, please.)  We walked around the town at night.  We ate really good food (truly) both nights…but the best was at Patsy’s in Bethany Beach on Tuesday evening.  I was able to have my soft shell crabs.  We watched a good friend and her group compete on America’s Got Talent (a first for me…and probably a last).

Claire thought it would be funny to post the picture of Candice and me walking down the street with the title of “Matching Parents” on Instagram…and immediately picked up a number of “likes.”  Candice and I just told her we were dressing comfortably!

And then we did more of nothing.

But Claire wasn’t finished.  When we arrived home, after a quick trip to wash the car, we headed down to NoMa (North of Massachusetts Avenue) for the NoMaBID’s weekly  Summer Screen 2013 showing of Ferris Bueller’s Day Off at an open lot near the NoMa Metro station.  (Only bummer of the entire three days…we saw a young lady get her iPhone ripped off right in front of us.  We tried to help by calling the Metro police and helping her track the jerk – but we don’t know how it ended.)

The food from the food trucks at the Summer Screen event was terrific (love those fish tacos), and the movie is a hoot.  The best part?  Watching half of a city block full of people in NoMa get up and do the twist during the movie’s “Twist and Shout” scene.

To keep in the Beach Bum/Leisure Rules theme, let’s enjoy Ferris singing one more time.

More to come…

DJB

That’s More Like It

Strasburg First Complete Game August 11, 2013In a year of struggles, today’s Nationals/Phillies series wrap-up was one of the feel-good games of 2013.

The day:  Beautiful late afternoon game at the ballpark with 32,355 other fans…including Andrew!  Third game in 8 days, and second with Andrew.  (Can you tell I’m on vacation!) Temps in the low 80s, and Section 313 starts out in the shade!  Smart decision to take the scorecard. Even the President’s Race was funny: each president wipes out Sharknado (don’t ask…something to do with the Discovery Channel’s Shark Week), Bill Taft gives him a body slam for good measure, and Teddy wins.

On to the game itself…

Stephen Strasburg:  First career complete game and a shutout for good measure.  No Philly makes it into scoring position. Totally dominant. Ten strikeouts. One walk. 99 total pitches – 66 strikes.

Jayson Werth:  Second three-hit game in a row. Hitting ropes to left field.  Werewolf in London walk-up music shows he doesn’t take himself too seriously. Scores – along with Ian Desmond – on one of the best hustle/heads-up plays of the year when Chase Utley’s throw home is offline, allowing Werth to score, followed quickly by Desmond when he saw the catcher take his time getting to the ball.

Wilson Ramos:  Continues his hot hitting, going 2-for-4, inching closer to .300.  Drives in a run.  He and Strasburg even combine to throw out Domonic Brown in a rare caught stealing for the Nats.

Denard Span: Two hits, one run scored, and one RBI.  Starts the game off strong and showing some signs of life on offense.

Steve Lombardozzi:  Three-hit game after getting a rare start at second base, with a RBI.

Nats in general:  Playing with pep in their step.  Executing the fundamentals.  Looking like they are having fun.  Series sweep (only 4th time this year).

Don’t get too excited.  The Phillies are getting old quickly and are not the same team that seemed poised to dominate the N.L. East just a couple of years ago. We are still 8 back in the wild card race.  But as I wrote on Wednesday after the dreary loss to the Braves, let’s all chill and enjoy whatever is left of the season. And that goes for the Nats as well as the fans.  I still believe in the Church of Baseball…and tonight really fed the soul.

More to come…

DJB

Summer in the City

Rockville Swing Band at Glen EchoTaking a vacation in  your hometown – or a staycation as it is commonly referred to – can be a great experience when you live in a city as rich in talent and activities as Washington.

Earlier this evening Candice, Andrew, and I enjoyed dinner at the Irish Inn at Glen Echo (technically, Andrew only joined us for tea at the end of the meal) and then walked next door to the wonderful Glen Echo park to take in the free Thursday evening concerts.  Tonight’s entertainment came via the Rockville Swing Band, and they had the old bumper car pavilion jumping.  It was hard to know where to keep your eyes – on the musicians or on the terrific dancers, some of whom were in their late 70s and still cutting the rug with the best of them.

We were in Glen Echo because Claire was wrapping up a six-week glass blowing course.  Claire decided that she wanted to take two arts classes – totally non-credit – over the summer just to feed her curiosity and her soul.

I took a couple of snapshots of our Claire at work, and I hope you’ll enjoy them.

More to come…

DJB

Claire glassblowing at Glen EchoClaire in glassblowing class at Glen Echo

Summer Reading 2013, Part II: Or How the Nats Lost Their Way

Way of BasballTechnically, I read Shawn Green’s unique little memoir/meditation The Way of Baseball before summer began, but after a night at the ballpark watching our Nats utterly fold in a three-game series sweep by the division leading Braves and reading Tom Boswell’s insightful (as always) column about how this year’s season went so wrong, I was reminded of how much I enjoyed this book.

Let’s begin with Boswell and the Nats.

For two-thirds of a season we’ve been told that the Nats had “too much talent” to keep playing this poorly, and that they would switch it on in time to get back in the pennant race.  But the Braves put an end to that kind of talk, with as utterly dominating a three-game series as you could have where the total run differential was only 5 runs for the three games.  Boswell put it best when he described the sweep as “an execution by proper execution.”

Amen.

The Nats played so effortlessly last year that it is easy to forget how difficult baseball can be if your head is just a little bit out-of-whack.  And with the Nats, these heads are more than a little out-of-whack. They are head cases, but as a friend says, “They are our head cases.” The equilibrium on the team was changed when Michael Morse’s big bat and free spirit was traded away and Denard Span’s terrific defense but anemic offense was put in its place. Drew Storen…well, let’s don’t go there…but his problems are emblematic of the bullpen as a whole.  And Davey Johnson, after his infamous “World Series or Bust” mantra for 2013, too often looks clueless and old, and very much not in control of his clubhouse and especially his hot-headed, talented but not perfect 20-year-old left fielder.  Boswell nails it all much more eloquently than I ever would, so I’ll direct you to his column.  But these Nats have played horrible fundamental baseball all season long, and that’s just inexcusable for a team with this type of talent.

Boswell sums it up with the following:

The Nats really are a talented, hard-working team with a good clubhouse and decent people. But they’ve been rattled, pressing, joyless and awful at fundamentals since April. They should reduce their season to a manageable goal: Play smart, focused baseball as a group, work to improve individually and have a reasonably loose and enjoyable time while you’re doing it. That actually can be done. The rest always takes care of itself.

And that brings me to Shawn Green’s book.

Green, a former Dodger (along with three other teams), has written a short memoir on his baseball career and the art of hitting that is really a meditation on how to approach life. A Jewish ballplayer drawing on Buddhist principles, Green describes the art of hitting as “finding stillness at 95 miles per hour.”  The chapter titles fit a baseball book (“The Zone”) as well as a handbook on eastern philosophy (“Awareness” and “Stillness.”)

In the chapter entitled “Ego,” Green has a quote that fits this Nats team to a T.  He says,

“…it’s not uncommon to make the mistake of comparing where we are in our lives to where we should be. The truth is that there is no such thing as where we should be; we are where we are, period.”

The Nats need to realize they are where they are and just start to enjoy the game today.  And for us fans, a long-time Red Sox fan and friend of mine reminded me that we really are “short-suffering Nats fans.”  Wait until we go 80+ years without a title before we bring out the poison.

Let’s all chill.  See you at Nationals Park on Sunday evening.  I still believe in the Church of Baseball.

More to come…

DJB

My That’s Spicy!

David at Lucy's with Candice, Andrew and ClaireIn planning this year’s staycation, everyone in the family picked one thing (or a series of related things) for the family to experience.  Andrew’s contribution?  Why four nights of ethnic dining in and around the Washington area.

First up:  Lucy’s Ethiopian Restaurant in Silver Spring!

Andrew and Claire have both discovered Ethiopian food over the past year, and they love it.  For Candice and me, it was a first.

The Washington Post recently had a strong review of Lucy’s which we took along for the evening, and the reviewer sent us toward some terrific tasting dishes. Between the four of us we enjoyed lamb, beef, collard greens and a wonderful misir wot dish (or split lentils).

Lucy’s is fast gaining a reputation as one of the best Ethiopian restaurants in the region, with food that is spicy and delicious.  But if you chose to go, just remember – you can leave your knife and fork at home.  Thanks to the injera (a spongy bread) for wrapping, this is all finger food.

Enjoy.

More to come…

DJB