Would You Rather Be the Ornithologist or the Bird?

As our recent board meeting came to a close, I’ve reflected on how we communicate at these times to trustees, colleagues, stakeholders, donors, long-time acquaintances, and new friends.  Over the course of four days, we provide written updates, make formal presentations, discuss our goals, share experiences, and—at our best—turn those opportunities for communication into meaningful, insightful stories.

Carmine Gallo notes that prominent neuroscientists “confirm what we’ve known for centuries: The human brain is wired for story. We process our world in narrative, we talk in narrative and—most important for leadership—people recall and retain information more effectively when it’s presented in the form of a story, not bullet points.”

To be effective, stories must connect on a human, emotional level.  Sometimes that requires that we break out of the “rules” to find the right point of connection. Writer Colum McCann in Letters to a Young Writer, notes that while grammar is important in writing, it isn’t the be-all and end-all when we try to communicate.  There’s more we have to get across than just grammatical structure.

“Writers feel the grammar rather than knowing it.  This comes from good reading. If you read enough, the grammar will come.  In the end it’s the language itself—the shimmyshine of it—that matters so much more than the manners the grammar police want to put upon it.”

I like the thought of the “shimmyshine” of the language serving a larger purpose.  In the same essay, McCann notes that, “On occasion we write a sentence that isn’t, in fact, correct, but it sings.  And the question is:  Would you rather be the ornithologist or the bird?”

In written or spoken words—in telling our stories—let’s strive to be the bird.

Songbird (credit: Science Daily)

Songbird (credit: Science Daily)

Have a good week.

More to come…

DJB

What a Wonderful Washington Weekend!

It is a great weekend to live in Washington…

Stanley Cup Celebrations Continue — From bars in Arlington to today’s game at National Park to the Georgetown Waterfront, the Stanley Cup Champion Washington Capitals are having a great time celebrating the franchise’s first Stanley Cup championship with the hometown fans.  While I was across the country when they clinched on Thursday evening, I could hear the city explode from Phoenix. We’re ALL CAPS here in D.C. It was an especially satisfying run, given 1) that they weren’t expected to go very deep due to losses of players to the expansion draft, and 2) that they got through a couple of perennial stumbling blocks:  John (Torts) Tortorella of the Columbus Blue Jackets and—most significantly—the Pittsburgh Penguins.  Too bad Martin St. Louis—who was always a playoff pest—no longer plays for Tampa Bay.

If you want another thrill, watch the highlights from the cup-clinching game.

Pride 2018 Celebration — Thousands have descended on DC this weekend for the annual Pride celebration.  Andrew almost always makes it to Pride, but because of singing commitments out-of-town, he’s only able to attend Sunday’s festival.  (Work can be such a bummer sometimes!)  I have a number of friends and colleagues who are enjoying this celebration of diversity in the DC capital, and I suspect the good times are rolling.

Politics and Prose Member Sale — Several times a year, our wonderful independent bookstore, Politics and Prose , holds a big members sale…and it just happened to be this weekend.  So after our traditional Saturday morning farmers’ market visit and pastries at Tout de Sweet, we headed into town for the sale.

Candice was much more methodical in her research than I had been.  Nevertheless, I had a few titles in mind, and planned to trust my instincts when faced with a decision.

Books from Politics and Prose

Today’s purchases at the Politics & Prose members sale – what a treasure trove!

The books from Educated to the top are Candice’s choices.  Mine go down from there to the recent Pauli Murray biography Jane Crow.  Our summer reading bags are full once again!

And Did I Mention That the Nationals Won — Once the Nats were finished with the pre-game celebrations with the Caps on Saturday, they turned around to beat the San Francisco Giants 7-5, holding on to first place in the National League East.  Adam Eaton returned from the Disabled List and Bryce hit another home run.  Go Nats!

Have a great weekend…wherever you live (but this weekend, it is hard to top D.C.)

More to come…

DJB

P.S. — Oh, and not everyone stayed in Washington this weekend…that’s not a bad thing.

Bad Stories

I am in the middle of an impressive yet troubling book by Steve Almond entitled Bad Stories.  This work about the American psyche in 2018, by the New York Times best-selling author and co-host of the Dear Sugars podcast (with fellow writer Cheryl Strayed), looks at the many reasons we came to be where we are today as a nation. There is much to consider in this work, and I may return to it in future posts.  But for now, I want to focus on stories—good and bad—and what they can mean personally and professionally for those of us who look to “tell the full American story.”

Almond writes, “I’ve placed my faith in stories because I believe them to be the basic unit of human consciousness. The stories we tell, and the ones we absorb, are what allow us to pluck meaning from the rush of experience.”  He then quotes the Israeli historian Yuval Noah Harari, who insists that our species came to dominate the world in part because of “our unique cognitive ability to believe in the imagined, to tell stories that extend beyond our bonds beyond clan loyalties.”  For a powerful example of storytelling, we don’t have to look much beyond last Saturday’s address at the royal wedding by Episcopal Bishop Michael Curry.

As a lover of history, I believe in the power of stories.  Like each of you, I’ve heard them my entire life.  As I wrote recently, people I love told stories that were wrong—bad stories—which perpetuated a false reality that was focused on keeping one race of people under the control of another and to “warp our fears into loathing.”

Almond says,

“Our larger systems of cooperation, whether spiritual, political, legal, or financial, require faith in a beautiful fiction known as the common good….For most of our history, humans relied upon folklore and religious parable to conceptualize the common good.  But much of our progress as a species, Harari insists, is a function of cultures shifting from superstitious stories to verifiable ones, as happened during the Scientific Revolution of the 16th century.  Our embrace of reason and empiricism has saved a lot of people from dying of illness and starvation.  It has led to a standard of living within many precincts of the world that would have been unimaginable in previous epochs.  It has not, however, changed the fact that we still choose the stories by which we construct reality (emphasis added).

What happens, then, when some of the stories we tell ourselves are bad, meaning fraudulent either by design or negligence?  What happens when the stories we tell ourselves are frivolous?  Or when we ignore stories that are too frightening to confront?  What happens when we fall under the sway of stories intended to sow discord, to blunt our moral imaginations, to warp our fears into loathing and our mercy into vengeance?  The principle argument of this book is that bad stories lead to bad outcomes (emphasis added).

…bad stories arise from an unwillingness to take reality seriously.  If bad stories become pervasive enough they create a new and darker reality.”

Bad Stories

Bad Stories: What the Hell Just Happened to Our Country by Steve Almond

We work at telling the full American story at the National Trust in part to correct bad stories, and in part to take reality seriously.  I think that is work at the core of our lives together.  It has also led me to think about the personal stories I tell myself and others. When I get a (minor) fact wrong I’m fond of saying, “this story may not be factually accurate, but it is true,” meaning that it points us in the right direction.  Almond, in a response to a question from his seven-year-old son about the truth of a set of stories, says something similar when he notes that the truth of certain stories isn’t really the point.  “A story didn’t have to be true (which I interpret as factual) to produce a good outcome, to help people behave a little more kindly.” Sometimes the intent of the storyteller to either build up or tear down is the determining factor of a story’s value.

If we can recognize the value of others as well as our role in listening to, understanding, and honoring their stories, I believe we’ll be on the right path to taking reality seriously.  And we’ll be correcting bad stories.

Have a good week.

More to come…

DJB

Sometimes the Only Way is the Long One

Wanderlust

Wanderlust: A History of Walking by Rebecca Solnit

During a 2013 vacation where each family member chose an activity close-to-home for us to share, my wife’s selection was a day at a local retreat center.*  Upon arrival, I was pleased to see that the center had created a labyrinth in the woods.  Labyrinths have come to have a special place in my heart.  A dear friend of our family who died in his early 20s was memorialized with a labyrinth designed for people of all physical abilities.  Andrew had spent the majority of his life in a wheelchair, but that never constrained his spirit. Back at the retreat center, “walking the labyrinth” became my activity for the morning.

I was reminded of this recently while re-reading Rebecca Solnit’s wonderful book Wanderlust:  A History of WalkingAn early chapter is titled “Labyrinths and Cadillacs: Walking Into the Land of the Symbolic.” (I told you it was a wonderful book!)  Solnit, who describes herself as “having been raised as nothing in particular by a lapsed Catholic and a nonpracticing Jew,” found herself walking the labyrinth at Grace Cathedral in San Francisco one evening and then muses on the “rules” and “moral” of the practice:

“…sometimes you have to turn your back on your goal to get there, sometimes you’re farthest away when you’re closest, sometimes the only way is the long one.  After the careful walking and looking down, the stillness of arrival was deeply moving.”

Trinity Church Labyrinth

Labyrinth in Memory of Andrew Lane at Trinity Church, Staunton, VA

Walking in symbolic space doesn’t require any particular spiritual or religious practice, but it strikes me that thinking about these truths are useful for everyone. We take journeys in work and life and the path is seldom straight. Short cuts often lead to dead ends. As Solnit notes, “Part of what makes roads, trails, and paths so unique as built structures is that they cannot be perceived as a whole all at once by a sedentary onlooker.  They unfold in time as one travels along them … Symbolic structures such as labyrinths call attention to the nature of all paths, all journeys.”

I hope you’ll take some time to think about your journeys, and have a good week.

More to come…

DJB

* You may not be surprised that for my selection in 2013, I stretched the idea of staying in the region and chose a family weekend in Pittsburgh to see the Pirates, cross another baseball stadium off my bucket list, and work in a return visit to Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater.  My daughter’s choice had us spending three days at the beach, while my son picked out four ethnic restaurants around DC where we expanded our culinary palates.  When you have 21-year old children and you’re paying college tuition, this “make your own” vacation is a good alternative to a couple of expensive weeks out-of-town.

I Am Still Every Age That I Have Been

A Wrinkle in Time

“A Wrinkle in Time” by Madeleine L’Engle

It was a big week in our household, as we acquired a new hip and celebrated a birthday.*  As a small child, you may have received a new puppy on your special day.  Others years may bring clothes for college or gifts for the new apartment. Later, you might rejoice with a new child or a special trip abroad. On occasion one might celebrate a birthday with a broken shoulder.  Now that we’re in the new hip stage (for a second time), I’m comforted by this thought of the author Madeleine L’Engle:

“I am still every age that I have been. Because I was once a child, I am always a child. Because I was once a searching adolescent, given to moods and ecstasies, these are still part of me, and always will be… This does not mean that I ought to be trapped or enclosed in any of these ages…the delayed adolescent, the childish adult, but that they are in me to be drawn on; to forget is a form of suicide… Far too many people misunderstand what ‘putting away childish things’ means, and think that forgetting what it is like to think and feel and touch and smell and taste and see and hear like a three-year-old or a thirteen-year-old or a twenty-three-year-old means being grownup. When I’m with these people I, like the kids, feel that if this is what it means to be a grown-up, then I don’t ever want to be one. Instead of which, if I can retain a child’s awareness and joy, and ‘be’ fifty-one, then I will really learn what it means to be grownup.”

Living through what you know and who you have been from the years of life is a way to understand current circumstances and embrace new possibilities. The quote popped into my head as I was thinking of Madeleine L’Engle and the buzz about the new A Wrinkle in Time movie that will be released later this week. The folding of space and time is at the core of the story, as is the power of love over evil. My children both read the book when they were young, and it remains among the most influential of their lives. Candice took a week-long writing class led by L’Engle some 25 years ago and returned with a copy of “Wrinkle” signed by the author to me.  I pulled it out last weekend when a colleague said she had been encouraged by my earlier note to “read when it is inconvenient” and — in the midst of our recent board meetings — began to re-read the book before the movie’s launch.  I was equally inspired by her enthusiasm, and quickly finished re-reading this wonderful tale late last week.

Signed copy of A Wrinkle in Time

A prized copy of “A Wrinkle in Time”

As Candice continues her recovery from surgery, I’m using the time to think anew about what it means to be three, thirteen, twenty-five, forty, and (ahem) more all at the same time.  L’Engle’s push to retain a child’s awareness and joy seems like a great place for all of us to begin.

Have a good week.

More to come…

DJB

*Just to be clear, the two things did not happen to the same individual.  Candice acquired the new hip (her second). I celebrated the birthday and acquired two new baseball-themed ties.  While adjusting to the new hip is an all-in family activity, I suspect that I’ll be the only one wearing the baseball ties.

Writing, Briefly. Writing Well.

Writer's Block

Writer’s Block (photo credit: Center for Documentary Studies)

I am a frustrated writer.  Not the kind who needs to work on The Great American Novel (or TGAN)*.  If I wanted to write fiction — great or otherwise — there are plenty of models to follow, such as Flannery O’Connor’s habit of three-hours of writing first thing every morning, or advice to be found in places like Annie Dillard’s eloquent The Writing Life  and Cheryl Strayed’s direct and somewhat salty response (be forewarned) to a young aspiring writer.  No, I want to be able to write essays, blog posts, magazine articles, reports, letters, and speeches that pull people in, make them care about the topic at hand, show a bit of my personality, and only say what needs to be said and nothing more.

If you have similar aspirations, you may not want to take advice about writing from a computer programmer, but let me suggest that Paul Graham — a programmer, writer, and investor who helped co-found Y-Combinator, a new type of startup investment firm — should be the exception.

In a tiny essay entitled Writing, Briefly, Graham lays out his thoughts on the importance of writing.

“I think it’s far more important to write well than most people realize. Writing doesn’t just communicate ideas; it generates them. If you’re bad at writing and don’t like to do it, you’ll miss out on most of the ideas writing would have generated.”

I agree.  “Let’s see how it writes” is my favorite instruction to our management team after we’ve talked through a topic.  Writing helps you generate and think through ideas.

So after this opening, Graham proceeds, in one very long sentence, to outline how to write well.  Here’s a flavor to whet your appetite:

“As for how to write well, here’s the short version: Write a bad version 1 as fast as you can; rewrite it over and over; cut out everything unnecessary; write in a conversational tone; develop a nose for bad writing, so you can see and fix it in yours; imitate writers you like; if you can’t get started, tell someone what you plan to write about, then write down what you said; expect 80% of the ideas in an essay to happen after you start writing it, and 50% of those you start with to be wrong; be confident enough to cut;

. . .

print out drafts instead of just looking at them on the screen; use simple, germanic words; learn to distinguish surprises from digressions; learn to recognize the approach of an ending, and when one appears, grab it.”

Do yourself a favor and read the entire Graham essay at the link above. It will take less than two minutes. I suspect you’ll think differently about computer programmers — and writing — once you’re finished.

Have a good week.

More to come…

DJB

* The very wise — and recently departed — science fiction writer Ursula K. Le Guin has an interesting essay on the topic of The Great American Novel, where she posits that John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath is the book that will tell you the most about what is good and what is bad in America, but in the very next essay she writes that “Who cares?” is the correct answer to the question about what is TGAN. (Since this is a digression, I have placed this in an end note at the bottom of my blog post, per Graham’s advice.)

Hope and Redemption

This Wednesday features a coming together of events that cannot be a coincidence.  For those who believe in romance, the 14th of February is, of course, Valentine’s Day.  On the same day, Christian believers — especially of the liturgical persuasion — will observe Ash Wednesday, the first day of the penitential season of Lent leading up to Easter.  And for those like Annie Savoy* and me who worship at the Church of Baseball, February 14th is when, as spring training begins, we hear those magical words “pitchers and catchers report” that take ever-optimistic fans into flights of fancy about the prospects for their favorite team.

I’m going with the thought that this particular February 14th is a harmonic convergence of Hope and Redemption.

I was thinking of those two themes and how much impact they can have on our lives as I’ve been reading  Ron Chernow’s new biography of Ulysses S. Grant.  Chernow is one of the few historians who, through deep scholarship and powerful writing, can drive the country toward a full reappraisal of a historical figure’s life and impact.  David McCullough’s works on Truman and John Adams come immediately to mind as examples of this type of national reassessment, but Chernow has also worked his magic in the past with Alexander Hamilton and George Washington. He does so again with this biography of Grant.

Grant

Grant by Ron Chernow

The historical stereotype of U.S. Grant — especially if you grew up in the South — is of a failed businessman and drunkard who stumbled into military success in the Civil War by butchering his men in frontal assaults against the much greater military strategist, Robert E. Lee.  The South finally had to succumb due to the North’s overwhelming forces and resources.  Then, the story continues, Grant’s two terms as president were deeply mired in scandal, where ruffians stole anything that wasn’t nailed down (figuratively) from the federal government.  In 1,074 pages, Chernow not only destroys these stereotypes, but he paints a picture of a complex individual, both very wise and at the same time incredibly naïve, who played an outsized role in saving the Union during the war and in protecting African Americans and their rights during the years of Reconstruction.  He was an unassuming underdog who, according to one of his generals, “talked less and thought more than any one in the service.” When President Lincoln made Grant commander over all the Union armies in 1864, this quiet strategic sense came to the forefront in ways not always appreciated.  He was, in fact, the war’s most brilliant tactician and strategist who — in the words of General William Sherman — coordinated armies across an entire continent while Lee was focused on one small state.  The pleasant surprise of the book for me is Chernow’s description of  Grant’s role as president during a difficult expansionist and unregulated period in the nation’s history.  The South was in utter chaos when he assumed the presidency, yet Grant’s focus and convictions broke the power of the Ku Klux Klan through “legislation, military force, and prosecution” and his support for African American equality through the policies of Reconstruction has not been widely recognized.  Most Americans don’t understand this entire period of our history and its lasting impact today, which is one reason we have battles in the 21st century over Confederate memorials.

There is hope in this story, hopefulness that demands things of us, just as it demanded things of Grant as he dared to hope for the future of his country. The personal redemption of Grant from his period of failed businesses and binge drinking is also key to the story.  However, the ongoing redemption of Grant’s reputation remains important to all of us today, as we seek to understand our true history — the full American story — and how we have yet to face the unfinished business of race, emancipation and equality.

Hope is not easy. Redemption is not always around the corner.  As in Grant’s case, it may take over a century.  Yet hope that demands things that despair does not can help bring us — as individuals and as a nation — to a redemption we may not clearly understand but desperately need.

Have a good week.

More to come…

DJB

*You’ll have to watch Bull Durham if you don’t understand the reference.  And if you do, this will be your reminder that it is time to watch it again!