College reunion: My 45th

I have to begin by saying that I have no idea what a “normal” college reunion is like.  I picture football games, halftime bands, sorority and fraternity parties and a good deal of alcohol consumption.  That last may be the one thing that a homecoming reunion at St. John’s College has in common with other homecomings.

My husband (who was in my class at St. John’s) and I hadn’t been to a reunion since the 25th, but we had been tapped as co-chairs for the 45th.  The first thing you have to understand is that St. John’s is a tiny school.  I think that there are around 400 current students on the Annapolis campus and an equal number on the Santa Fe one.  In the mid to late 1960s the student bodies were smaller.  I believe that the graduation rates have increased since my time, also.  Our freshman class was around 100 and if memory serves me, about 50 or 60 of us finally graduated.  This is my long-winded way of explaining why when 11 us (plus one spouse who is also the mother of a graduate) showed up, it was a pretty good number.

But what is a reunion all about?  You go to the place where you were x number of years ago and you hang-out with people you haven’t seen for years (and maybe didn’t know so well to start).  A reunion/homecoming at St. John’s is different. What makes a St. John’s reunion for me is several things.  First, the school is small enough that one knows people from other classes.  Second, because we all had pretty much the same curriculum and read the same books we could talk to friends (some old and some new) from the Classes of 1984, 1967, 1956 and 1965 with no problem.  And, third, the experience is intellectually stimulating.  Even the Friday night lecture, which wasn’t very good, sparked a breakfast discussion at our B & B about Dostoevsky and “The Brothers Karamazov”.  We came home and researched translations and will order and read the book again.

Our class had a seminar on Moliere’s “Misanthrope” led by two tutors that many of us had studied with back when we were students. The College also mixed in some current students.  It was a lively event with discussion on comedy, tragedy and what it means to be a misanthrope.  The play came up several times in other discussions over the weekend and my husband and I talked about it on the drive home to Vermont.  That is a powerful experience.  Seminars are the heart of any reunion at St. John’s but are not the only shared experience that is re-experienced.  There was also Freshman chorus (think of a bunch of mostly non musicians singing Mozart and rounds as we were once required to do. )  That was fun!

This was the anniversary of the writing of the “Star-Spangled Banner” by Francis Scott Key who is an alumni of what we fondly refer to as the Old Program.  (St. John’s is the third oldest college in the United States after Harvard and William and Mary.)  In his honor we all toddled out to back campus after drinking much wine at dinner (and the pre-dinner reception) to watch the fireworks over College Creek after this year’s Freshmen sang the “Star-Spangled Banner”  It was a great Homecoming and Reunion.

Fireworks over College Creek, St. John's College, Annapolis 2014 Homecoming.

Fireworks over College Creek, St. John’s College, Annapolis 2014 Homecoming.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Photograph: Tia Pausic

Join Us in the Fight For Net Neutrality

Originally posted on WordPress.com News:

“Net Neutrality” is the simple but powerful principle that cable and broadband providers must treat all internet traffic equally. Whether you’re loading a blog post on WordPress.com, streaming House of Cards on Netflix, or browsing handcrafted tea cozies on Etsy, your internet provider can’t degrade your connection speed, block sites, or charge a toll based on the content that you’re viewing.

Net neutrality has defined the internet since its inception, and it’s hard to argue with the results: the internet is the most powerful engine of economic growth and free expression in history. Most importantly, the open internet is characterized by companies, products, and ideas that survive or fail depending on their own merit — not on whether they have preferred deals in place with a broadband service provider. Unfortunately, the principle of net neutrality, and the open internet that we know and love, is under attack.

Net Neutrality under…

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Police departments and racial diversity

Back in the dark ages, that is the early to mid-1980s, I worked on a study for then Virginia Governor Charles Robb.  He wanted to know several things including how we could recruit more African-Americans and women to the State Police and how, once we hired them, they could be retained.  I can’t recall that we came up with anything one wouldn’t have expected including things like more training for command in diversity issues.  I do remember one black trooper I interviewed had an idea on how to recruit people.  He suggested that he be made part of the Governor’s security detail which would provide lots of visibility.  I told the Governor and the next thing I knew, the trooper was thanking me when we ran into each other on the Capitol grounds.  I have no idea if his presence helped recruit more blacks to the ranks or not but it did provide some visibility and I remember that the Capitol Police then hired several black officers.

So my little story took place in 1983.  This morning’s New York Times has some very interesting charts on large Metropolitan police departments and the differences between their racial compositions and those of the towns they serve.

In hundreds of police departments across the country, the percentage of whites on the force is more than 30 percentage points higher than in the communities they serve, according to an analysis of a government survey of police departments. Minorities make up a quarter of police forces, according to the 2007 survey, the most recent comprehensive data available. Experts say that diversity in the police force increases a department’s credibility with its community. “Even if police officers of whatever race enforce the law in relatively the same way, there is a huge image problem with a department that is so out of sync with the racial composition of the local population,” said Ronald Weitzer, a sociologist at George Washington University. Listed below are local police departments from 15 metropolitan areas, sorted so that departments with the largest percentage-point differences of white officers to white residents are at the top.

We clearly have a long way to go.  I wonder if part of the recruitment problem is the sheer number of young black and Hispanic men who have conviction records.  Perhaps we should look into that.

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I was interested to see that Boston (+18) and Somerville (+15) were doing pretty well.  Those are two of the police departments I’ve worked with in the recent past.  Other departments should take a look at this chart and talk to some of the successful agencies – and I don’t mean towns that have a small gap because the population of the town itself is mostly white – and learn from what they have done.

Incidents like the shooting in Ferguson don’t happen in a vacuum.  Look up a town near you and ask questions if you don’t like what you see.

 

 

As a footnote:  While I was looking to a picture to add, I was surprised at the number of stock photographs showing police in riot gear and/or arresting someone, often a black male.  Just another part of the problem.

Photograph:  how2becomeanfbiagent.com

Labor, management and Market Basket

If you don’t live in New England – you have probably never heard of the Market Basket grocery chain.  It has been known for customer service and low prices.  I confess that I’ve probably shopped there maybe twice in the last 20 years so I am clearly not a regular.  But I know people who swear by Market Basket and, for some, it is the only store in town.  Whether you have heard of MB and love it, or don’t know the first thing about the store, there are lessons to be learned for Labor Day.

For more years than I can count, there has been a feud between the two cousins, Arthur S. and Arthur T. who inherited the store.  It has involved an epic court battle, and if I remember correctly, disciplinary action against some of the attorneys.  There was also an actual fist fight as at one point between the Arthurs.  All the while, Arthur T. has been managing the stores and making money for everyone.  But, according to the employees and Arthur T., the board wanted to take a bigger share of the profits for themselves and the shareholders who are mainly family members. The board decided to fire Arthur T.  Shirley Leung writes in her Boston Globe column

For six weeks, we were mesmerized by the sight of thousands of grocery clerks, cashiers, and other workers protesting at stores, on Facebook, and on the front pages of this paper. They did so at great risk, without the protection of a union, not because they wanted higher wages, but merely the return of their beloved boss, Arthur T. Demoulas.

 

Who among us would do that? Not many, if any at all. We were riveted because we wanted to be them. These rebellious employees gave voice to the voiceless masses who just wanted to hold on to decent wages for a decent day’s work at a time when fat cats get $50 million paychecks for showing up, and the gap between the rich and the poor is as gaping as ever.

 

After the Market Basket board ousted Arthur T., these foot soldiers of capitalism kept the story alive when they made flyers protesting his removal and distributed them to customers. Then they reached out to the media and politicians to talk about their improbable demand. Soon workers walked off the job and refused to restock shelves. Customers boycotted in solidarity, putting the economic squeeze on new management to do something.

While it is tempting to portray Arthur T. as the Good Arthur and Arthur S. as the Bad Arthur, as Leung points out Arthur S. and his pals never carried out threats to fire everyone and hire new people.  There was an attempt to hold a job fair, but it was never clear how many people came or if anyone was hired.  I believe eight people were fired early on, but that example didn’t slow either the employee action or customer boycotts.  The governors of New Hampshire and Massachusetts got involved.  A settlement was announced finally and Arthur T. is buying out Arthur S. so as to become the majority shareholder.  He will now be running a severely damage company in deep debt and will be borrowing money to pay for his purchase.

Employees seem optimistic.  They returned to work as soon as the announcement was made.  Whether the stores can be stocked so there are things for people to buy, whether suppliers can return, and whether Arthur T. can keep to his promise to continue to treat and pay workers well are open questions.  If Market Basket can beat the odds and make a comeback to profitability, the story will be studied in business schools and by labor historians for many years.  Actually, it will probably be studied no matter what happens.

Market Basket employees celebrate the return of Arthur T.

Market Basket employees celebrate the return of Arthur T.

The Market Basket story is one for this Labor Day.  Non-union employees took collective action to save a boss and his practice of putting employees above shareholders. I’ll let Joan Vennochi have the last word.

Most notable is the power of narrative. Market Basket workers used social media as an organizing tool, but, at the same time, they skillfully used old and new media to tell their story before the other side knew what was happening.

And, unless you were Arthur S., it was a story that had something for everyone:

Workers standing up for, not against, management.

The desire to believe in one corporate leader putting the well-being of his workers

over shareholders, in an old-fashioned “It’s A Wonderful Life” way.

Employees of modest means willing to put paychecks for rent and mortgages on the line for principle.

“It speaks to a search and yearning for respect and fairness,” said Lew Finfer, a veteran community organizer who has worked for decades with unions to do just that by promoting better worker pay, conditions, and benefits.

There are lessons here for everyone.

Photograph:  JESSICA RINALDI/GLOBE STAFF

 

Hitting reset

A few weeks ago, my husband and I both noted an article in the New York Times Week in Review section called “Hit the Reset “Button in Your Brain.”  The authors argued the need for a true vacation from work.  In other words not one like President Obama had where according to a news report I heard he talked to at least 9 foreign leaders and held at least 4 press conferences.  This would be in addition to the normal routine of daily briefings, etc.  Some of the rest of us call work and read email while ostensibly on vacation.  They argue

If you’re feeling overwhelmed, there’s a reason: The processing capacity of the conscious mind is limited. This is a result of how the brain’s attentional system evolved. Our brains have two dominant modes of attention: the task-positive network and the task-negative network (they’re called networks because they comprise distributed networks of neurons, like electrical circuits within the brain). The task-positive network is active when you’re actively engaged in a task, focused on it, and undistracted; neuroscientists have taken to calling it the central executive. The task-negative network is active when your mind is wandering; this is the daydreaming mode. These two attentional networks operate like a seesaw in the brain: when one is active the other is not.

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So what helps us reset and overcome the overload?

Increasing creativity will happen naturally as we tame the multitasking and immerse ourselves in a single task for sustained periods of, say, 30 to 50 minutes. Several studies have shown that a walk in nature or listening to music can trigger the mind-wandering mode. This acts as a neural reset button, and provides much needed perspective on what you’re doing.

Daydreaming leads to creativity, and creative activities teach us agency, the ability to change the world, to mold it to our liking, to have a positive effect on our environment. Music, for example, turns out to be an effective method for improving attention, building up self-confidence, social skills and a sense of engagement.

I suspect that by moving to Vermont with cleaner air, quiet, and lots of space to walk and appreciate nature even within a few blocks of our house, we have hit our reset buttons.  Being able to sit on the screened in porch and watch daylight fade as I did last night or taking a walk to see the stars tonight provides time to think and reflect.  We did try to do this in Boston by walking around Jamaica Pond for example, but even there you could hear traffic.  I used to walk over to Boston Harbor at lunch and look at the water.  These are urban dwellers solutions which people in cities can employ.  But they need to do so without cellphones and other devices.

I know it is a privilege to be able to retire to a place where we can so easily hit reset.

Illustration by Matthieu Bourel

A guide to talking about race

With the Michael Brown shooting leading the news and talk about possible ISIS attacks in the United States, racial and ethnic profiling is in the spotlight once again.  And you hear people saying that we need to have a conversation about race.  We keep talking about having one and somehow it never happens.  This is why I was interested to see Charles Blow’s recent column in the New York Times titled “Constructing a Conversation on Race.”

Let’s start with understanding what a racial conversation shouldn’t look like. It shouldn’t be an insulated, circular, intra-racial dialogue only among people who feel aggrieved.

A true racial dialogue is not intra-racial but interracial. It is not one-directional — from minorities to majorities — but multidirectional. Data must be presented. Experiences must be explored. Histories and systems must be laid bare. Biases, fears, stereotype and mistrust must be examined. Personal — as well as societal and cultural — responsibility must be taken.

And privileges and oppressions must be acknowledged. We must acknowledge how each of us is, in myriad ways, materially and spiritually affected by a society in which bias has been widely documented to exist and in which individuals also acknowledge that it exists

We all carry our own baggage:  an encounter with someone of a different race or background that didn’t go well; a perceived slight; or feeling passed over for someone for what we felt were racial reasons.  We may talk about these things within our own circles which are often made up of people just like us.  I am usually one of the very few Asian Americans in any group and it was only when I moved to Boston that I could be on the street or even in a meeting that was predominantly Asian.  And now I’ve moved to Vermont which is one of the whitest states and where my sister and I have already been confused because we have the same last name.  I have been referred to as “white” which somehow offends me but I think it is meant as a kind of compliment.  Race can be a no win thing.

Blow continues

I often tell people that while I know well that things aren’t fair or equal, we still have to decide how we are going to deal with that reality, today. The clock on life is ticking. If you wait for life to be fair you may be waiting until life is over. I urge people to fight on two fronts: Work to dismantle as much systematic bias as you can, as much for posterity as for the present, and make the best choice you can under the circumstances to counteract the effects of these injustices on your life right now.

He also advises that we should think about what we mean by race.

Next, understand that race is a weaponized social construct used to divide and deny.

According to a policy statement on race by the American Anthropological Association, “human populations are not unambiguous, clearly demarcated, biologically distinct groups” and “there is greater variation within ‘racial’ groups than between them.”

The statement continues:

“How people have been accepted and treated within the context of a given society or culture has a direct impact on how they perform in that society. The ‘racial’ worldview was invented to assign some groups to perpetual low status, while others were permitted access to privilege, power, and wealth. The tragedy in the United States has been that the policies and practices stemming from this worldview succeeded all too well in constructing unequal populations among Europeans, Native Americans, and peoples of African descent.”

It ends:

“We conclude that present-day inequalities between so-called ‘racial’ groups are not consequences of their biological inheritance but products of historical and contemporary social, economic, educational, and political circumstances.”

We need to think hard about why race and ethnicity are among the first things we recognize about someone and what we see is often not how the person thinks of herself.  One thing seems clear.   We need to talk and think about race a great deal more constructively that most current conversations where the parties can never get past their anger.  Maybe we can start the discussion by talking about Mr Blow’s column,

New laptop, new location

First post from FortLeft’s new home.  I am still trying to figure out all the ins and outs of this new laptop.  Ok, I’m a bit of a luddite and finally got a laptop, probably the last person to do s0.

Our furniture and boxes and boxes and boxes of stuff arrived two weeks ago tomorrow.  Progress has been made in unpacking, but when you have 6000+ books and the new house is configured differently, it is hard to place bookshelves and unbox.  Lots of stuff is ending up in the attic for now. But things are beginning to feel like home.  New routines – like curbside composting – are being established.

Don’t know when you last moved to a new state, but trying to change everything has taken a lot of energy and time.  I’m sure we will be discovering things we’ve missed for a while, but I think all the important stuff has been changed.  Moving to a different country would be even more difficult, I imagine.

The cats are adjusting and all the fish also survived the move.  The cats have explored their new digs and have found their sleeping spots.  I think they will miss the stacks of boxes when they are gone as places to jump to and sit on.

A fellow outside of the post office tried to get me to sign a petition about something the Board of Selectmen did, or maybe didn’t, do.  Had to tell him I didn’t know enough to have an opinion.  Not having an opinion is a bit strange for me, but I will keep reading the local paper and will figure things out.  For now, just enjoying a rainy day in Vermont.

Haven’t quite gotten the hang of inserting links and pictures yet so am re-using one.  But I wanted to do this first post before too much more time passed.

Books