Responding to Anger



Our recent national conversations too often seem soaked in anger. I don’t know anyone who hasn’t become angry.  It is a trait we all seem to share.  What differs is how we respond to anger:  our own and others.

Over the winter holiday, our family visited the National Museum of African American History and Culture.  Last Friday, our divisional management team toured the Mere Distinction of Colour exhibit at the National Trust Historic Site Montpelier.  Both cultural institutions showcased the many ways a people oppressed have responded to anger held against them by others as well as that held inside themselves. While at Montpelier, I picked up Michael Eric Dyson’s book Tears We Cannot Stop, a powerful call for recognition and redemption which brims with this Baptist preacher’s righteous anger.

In her collection of essays No Time to Spare:  Thinking About What Matters, Ursula K. Le Guin has a two-part piece on anger. The first half looks at public anger, while the second focuses on our private anger.  I thought of the first in the context of the Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday, and Dr. King’s nonviolent approach.  Dyson asserts — and King’s own writings demonstrate — that King’s teachings came from an anger against racism that never abated but which led to his life’s work against injustice.  Le Guin notes,

“Anger points powerfully to the denial of rights, but the exercise of rights can’t live and thrive on anger.  It lives and thrives on the dogged pursuit of justice….Anger continued on past its usefulness becomes unjust, then dangerous.  Nursed for its own sake, valued as an end in itself, it loses its goal.  It fuels not positive activism but regression, obsession, vengeance, self-righteousness.  Corrosive, it feeds off itself, destroying its host in the process.”

Mere Distinction of Colour

The Mere Distinction of Colour exhibit at James Madison’s Montpelier (photo credit: Montpelier Foundation)

Le Guin shifts from public anger, political anger, to a more personal experience.  And what she sees is troubling.

“…though I want to see myself as a woman of strong feeling but peaceable instincts, I have to realize how often anger fuels my acts and thoughts, how very often I indulge in anger….Certainly an outburst of anger can cleanse the soul and clear the air.  But anger nursed and nourished begins to act like anger suppressed: it begins to poison the air with vengefulness, spitefulness, distrust, breeding grudge and resentment, brooding endlessly over the causes of the grudge, the righteousness of the resentment.”

I think we have all seen this type of smoldering anger, and I would suggest it is what we are seeing in today’s national conversations.  Le Guin compares it to a weapon that we don’t know how to stop using.

“Perhaps the problem is this: when threatened, we pull out our weapon, anger.  Then the threat passes or evaporates.  But the weapon is still in our hand.  And weapons are seductive, even addictive; the promise to give us strength, security, dominance . . .

“Looking for positive sources or aspects of my own anger, I recognize one:  self-respect.  When slighted or patronized, I flare up in fury and attack, right then, right there.  I have no guilt about that.

“But then so often it turns out to have been a misunderstanding—the disrespect was not intended, or was mere clumsiness perceived as a slight.  And even if it was intended, so what?

“As my great-aunt Betsy said of a woman who snubbed her, ‘I pity her poor taste.’

“Mostly my anger is connected less with self-respect than with negatives: jealousy, hatred, fear….If I’m in an angry mood and aware of it, I can ask myself, So what is it you’re afraid of?  That gives me a place to look at my anger from.  Sometimes it helps get me into clearer air.”

That’s a lot to unpack and I recognize that much of the anger of the oppressed is the result of experiencing systemic discrimination, not mere slights over self-respect.  But with that caveat, this passage—and the entire essay—hit home with me.  Thinking about that dogged pursuit of justice in our public anger and the questioning of why we use anger as a weapon in our private lives are good places for me to reflect upon during this week when we celebrate the life of someone who moved beyond anger toward justice.

Have a good week.

More to come…


NYC: Continuing a Spring Break Tradition

This is a tradition that begins with an oft-told story.

When Claire was in fourth grade, she returned home from school one day to announce that the teacher had asked everyone to tell the class what their parents did for a living.  So I asked Claire, “What did you say?”  She replied, “I said my father signs papers and goes to meetings.” In her own straight-forward, fourth grade sense of the world, she was correct, and I told her so.  But I also said that meetings and papers were not why I worked.  And from that conversation, the annual Spring Break trip to get to know Daddy’s world was born.

A few weeks later I spoke to my then-boss and said I’d like to take one child with me on a trip during Spring Break to see the work of the National Trust.  Dick blessed the idea, saying he had done something similar when he worked in the White House.

My rules:  it had to be a legitimate work trip where they could see some on-the-ground preservation work, it had to be to some place the children were keen to visit, we had to be able to use frequent flyer miles for the children’s plane tickets, and we would take an extra day to visit things the children really wanted to see in the city or region.

Claire was up first in fifth grade (since she was the inspiration), and as luck would have it I was attending the National Main Streets Conference in Albuquerque that year.  Claire had never been to the Southwest, so off we went.  It was the perfect first Spring Break trip.  Claire wanted to visit Santa Fe, so we took the Turquoise Trail up from Albuquerque and spent the day in that wonderful city.  She learned a lot about Main Street.  We had a magical tour of Acoma Pueblo, our National Trust Historic Site.  And she even got to skip out of the plenary session where I was speaking to go with a friend to see the Albuquerque Isotopes (best minor-league name ever) play on “Homers for Heritage” day.

Next year it was Andrew’s turn.  I had a trip to Seattle planned to introduce Anthea Hartig, our then-new director of the Western Regional Office, to our partners, so to the Pacific Northwest we flew.  The reception for the event was at the renovated Sears Building in Seattle that is world headquarters for Starbucks (the first time they’d opened their doors to an outside party), and Andrew hit the jackpot.  While I was shaking hands and chatting up partners and supporters, our host took him on a basement-to-tower tour of the building.  I also discovered that he was a natural at cocktail parties, charming the ladies and talking like an adult.  And when he got tired, he went over to one of the many big chairs Starbucks has scattered all around the building, curled up, and fell asleep.  Later that trip we took a one day drive down to Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument – something I’d never have done on my own but it was fascinating for both of us.

Andrew has a two-week spring break, so that same year we went down to James Madison’s Montpelier, our National Trust Historic Site in Orange, Virginia, for a day trip and a hard hat tour of the restoration of the mansion.  Mike Quinn and his staff were incredibly generous in answering a sixth-grader’s questions, and I often wonder if that was the impetus for Andrew’s love of architecture.

Claire was up again for seventh-grade and had always wanted to see San Francisco.  I scheduled my first-ever visit to Cooper-Molera Adobe in Monterey to see first-hand a proposed project at this National Trust Historic Site.  We also met with the director at our other California site, Filoli, and had an all-around marvelous visit to the west coast.  (I have wondered if this was the trip that eventually led to Claire’s pull to California and her acceptance at Pomona College.)  We stayed at the Fairmont Hotel (getting a staff rate at our Historic Hotels of America was another key part of the trip) on historic Nob Hill.  We toured preservation projects in the city and Claire got her first taste of gourmet vegetarian life with a dinner at Greens.  (As I’m recognizing trends, perhaps this was influential in Claire’s later decision to become a vegetarian.)  A real treat of this trip was an invitation to a lunch at Random Ridge Winery, owned by good friend and award-winning preservation lawyer Susan Brandt-Hawley and her husband Bill.  They invited us and the National Trust Western Regional staff and their families out for a great day of food and wine.

For eighth grade, I needed to go to Denver for a series of meetings with the regional staff in our Mountains/Plains office and then on to Seattle for the National Main Streets Conference.  Andrew (he of the two-week spring break) was up, so we went to Denver.  Andrew toured the city on his own during my meetings (boasting later that he’d taken every form of transportation available to visit the sites – from light rail, to bus, to taxi, to walking).  The next day we drove to Georgetown, Colorado, to tour the Hotel de Paris, our most recent addition to the portfolio of National Trust Historic Sites.  In Seattle, Andrew went on neighborhood tours with the Main Street conference attendees before we headed home.

When they entered high school, I worried the tradition would end.  However, in their freshman year the twins came up with a scheme so both could go!  I had work in Boston that year and Andrew and Claire were both eager to go to the Northeast.  Claire agreed Andrew could join us so we could “see a few colleges along the way.”  I did my work in Boston (while Andrew and Claire explored the city on their own…things were changing), and then we headed west, stopping at Concord for a tourist visit (see the shot at left) and then out to Chesterwood for meetings with the head of our site advisory board.  And yes, we stopped to make our first visits to potential colleges.

The “Daddy’s world” tradition really ended with the sophomore and junior trips, and we dropped the work-related aspects of our spring break tradition.  All three of us went to Tennessee during the sophomore year to visit with family, and last year we became serious with the college visits.  Claire and I went to Southern California where Claire first visited Pomona College.  She heads back this fall as an incoming freshman.  When we returned to the east coast, Candice and Andrew joined us and we made Andrew’s first visit to Brown University, where he’ll enroll this fall.  So even with the changes, spring break trips continued to have a special resonance for us.

All of this is a VERY long preamble.  As Andrew and Claire approach the end of their senior years in high school, we decided on a trip to New York City for spring break – a place we’d never visited as a family.  We’ve been in the city the past three days on a wonderful visit that, while personal, still resonates with trips from the past.

Traveling with family takes you to places you wouldn’t normally visit.  Dylan’s Candy Bar, for instance, or the 8th floor of Saks (where the express elevator takes you to the women’s shoe section – a party place complete with thumping music and champagne that has its own zip code!)  But traveling with adult children also let’s you enjoy fine dining (a fabulous meal at Blue Hill) and the theatre (where we saw the New York production of War Horse, a show I was lucky enough to see last year in London).

And while this wasn’t a work-oriented trip, we still saw some great preservation work.  On a terrific tour of the Empire State Building, the project manager told us of the restoration of the lobby (a 2010 National Trust Honor Award winner) and the building’s incredible sustainability effort (which captured the attention of Claire the environmentalist and Andrew the preservationist).  We saw the work of some old friends from little ole’ Staunton, Virginia, when we visited the beautiful Taylor and Boody organ at St. Thomas on Fifth Avenue. It is also great to see the family live out their passions in the city.  Andrew went to an Evensong at St. Thomas.  Claire has worked hard not to take “tourist” photographs as she’s captured the city on film.  (Yes, she is old school.)  Andrew and I went for a walk on the High Line this afternoon, to scratch his urban planning itch, and we all made a pilgrimage to Greenwich Village to pay homage to Jane Jacobs.  Candice has found great food offerings for every occasion (including a neighborhood bistro, Serafina, this evening).  In my love for history, I heard that the 100th anniversary of the tragic Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire was being honored on Friday.  Later in the day we walked by the demonstration/remembrance as we visited Greenwich Village.

We are living in the moment…trying not to think about future Spring Breaks when the children are in college (and may not want to learn more about Daddy’s world).   Thank God for traditions that live on. Here are pictures from this year’s trip to New York City.  Enjoy.

More to come…


Montpelier Restoration Celebrated Amid Praise for Madison

Chief Justice John Roberts (left) was the keynote speaker on Constitution Day at James Madison’s Montpelier in Orange, Virginia.  Under a beautiful late summer sky, several thousand people came together this morning on the front lawn to hear of Madison – the Father of the Constitution and one of the most under-appreciated Founding Fathers – and to celebrate the completion of the restoration of his home, Montpelier.  It was a wonderful day that, as National Trust for Historic Preservation President Richard Moe said, doesn’t get any better if you’re in this business.

All the speakers rose to the occasion, but I found the remarks of Virginia Governor Tim Kaine especially thoughtful as he highlighted a Madison accomplishment, thought, and character trait.  The accomplishment was his role as Father of the Constitution.  To appreciate that accomplishment, Sir Christopher Wren’s epitaph at St. Paul’s Cathedral was recalled, “If you seek his monument, look around you.”

Governor Kaine then referenced Federalist #10, which he described as one of the most influential political thoughts in American history.  This emphasis on the pluralism of America meant that

“Republics could thrive…where many diverse factions continually vied with each other. Occasionally factions would unite in favor of specific policies, but these coalitions would be short‐lived. Through the persistent struggles of these factions, the liberty of both majorities and minorities would be maintained. “

Virginia Governor Kaine speaks at Montpelier
Virginia Governor Kaine speaks at Montpelier

Finally, Governor Kaine spoke of a character trait…the ability to change his mind.  The Governor talked of how Madison originally opposed adding a Bill of Rights, but he changed his mind – or “flip flopped” – when he saw that the Constitution would not be ratified without it.  Kaine celebrated the fact that any of us can wake up each morning a little smarter than the day before!

Perhaps the most moving moment of the celebration came when two young people came together to read the preamble to the Constitution.  One was a descendant of James Madison’s sister (Madison himself did not have any children).  The other was a descendant of a slave born at Montpelier, who later helped Dolley remove the Washington portrait from the White House during the British attack, received his freedom after James Madison’s death, became a leader of the abolitionist movement, and then gave Dolley food and money from his own pocket as she was living in Washington after being forced to sell Montpelier to pay for debts.  To see and hear these two young people reading these famous words reminded us of what we have to be thankful for as citizens of the United States – and how much work we still have to do to reach that “more perfect Union.”

We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.

More to come…




Update on Farnsworth Flooding

As Barbara Campagna – the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s  Graham Gund Architect – reports on the PreservationNation blog, the flood waters have receded at the Farnsworth House.  Flood waters from the remnants of Hurricane Ike rose to about 18″ in the house before cresting.  Check out Barbara’s post to read about the way the staff protected the priceless furniture and panels in this modernist masterpiece.

Tomorrow I’ll be at Montpelier in Orange, Virginia, to help celebrate the restoration of James Madison’s home by the Montpelier Foundation and the National Trust for Historic Preservation.  Check out the blog tomorrow evening for pictures and an update.

More to come…

Montpelier’s Restoration and the Importance of James Madison

Many of you know that the National Trust for Historic Preservation and the Montpelier Foundation have undertaken a complete restoration of Montpelier, the historic home of James Madison in Orange, Virginia.  The home will be opened Wednesday, September 17th, after a five-year restoration.  Preservation magazine has a terrific story on this work in the September/October 2008 issue. 

The Father of the Constitution’s house will be reopened – appropriately enough – on Constitution Day.  The opening also comes three days after the extension for yet another year of the national state of emergency first declared on September 14, 2001.

Madison – one of our most underappreciated Founding Fathers – is still very relevant today.  To see Madison’s warnings about “experiments with our liberties” read his Memorial and Remonstrance

More to come…