Monthly Archives: March 2014

On the Steady Decline of our Great American Culture, or, “Kids These Days”

You know, when I was your age I walked to school barefoot in the snow. Uphill. Both ways!

And I didn’t complain.

Well, actually, I carpooled or took public transportation while wearing shoes in the temperate climate of northern California, and I probably complained quite a lot. But you get the idea.

Kids these days got no respect, no decorum, and certainly no sense of culture.

Or so I’m told.

Take this article from the upstanding scholars at the New York Times.  As it turns out, “the kind of hyperbole young people are prone to traffic in, like, all the time” is now infecting “otherwise literate adults” who have reduced themselves to using tacky, curt, and grammatically incorrect “fragments,” to regurgitate other’s content all over the Internet.

Young women are even more to blame – these fragments “mostly seem like ‘girl-speak’ that’s become ‘Internet-speak.’ We talk to each other in fragments because of how short on time we are now that we’re liberated.”

Yes, that’s it exactly.

No, wait. Let’s back this train up and try again.

So, first of all. I have to admit to being somewhat old fashioned, particularly in the language department. I hate the term YOLO. I’m okay with portmanteaus in theory – any word coined by Lewis Carroll is fine by me – but I generally hate them in practice. “Amazeballs” is one of the worst words to ever happen to me. If you send me a cryptic email in all lower case with no punctuation – I don’t care if it’s from your phone, I’ll still write back mocking you as “e e [whomever].”

And that’s my right.

But you know what? English is a living language, and that means it’s going to live. And that’s a good thing, too, because otherwise wit á béon efenwrítaþ swá þes.

Sorry, my Middle English isn’t what it used to be.

This article may not have bothered me so much if I didn’t run into this sentiment over and over again. One stupid guy at the NY Times I can deal with, but it seems like every time I turn around someone is bemoaning the terrible travesty of kids these days. Whether they’re self-indulged, thoughtless, stupid, shallow, cheap, or any other number of cruel names, someone’s always got it in for the young people.

And these complaints are all tied together. “Kids these days” are the future – better whip them into shape now before the future is forever lost. Why can’t they be like we were – perfect in every way?

But, that’s a misplaced sentimentality. Yes, things change. Yes, it’s hard. Yes, I make a mental correction anytime someone writes Internet without a capital ‘i’. But we are all co-creators of our world – and our language – and we should welcome young people to that role as peers.

We should respect the contributions they make – even if we disagree. We should disagree as peers.

It’s a remarkable time for language. A single word can mean so much more than it used to.

THIS.

I can’t even.

Fragments, perhaps. Possibly not the best grammar to ever grace the face of the earth. But packed with meaning nonetheless. There’s so much emotion in those words. So much shared understanding.

Words are precious because they are the currency of our communication. They are the tools that allow a complex thought to travel from me to you, or from you to me.

You can accomplish this through poetry, you can accomplish this through prose. And if you can accomplish this through a simple statement, so much the better. That is where the art lies.

And that is amazing.

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The People’s Paper

NewsWhip, a site that collects and reports data on trending media stories, recently published some “people powered front pages.”

That is, they took selected newspaper’s home pages, and re-imagined them, “giving the most shared story the most prominence, the second most shared the second most prominence, etc.”

Here are a few of the covers – original on the left, “people powered” on the right. You can see them all over at NewsWhip.

This is interesting, but what should we take away from this little experiment?

Should publishers work harder to prioritize the most shared stories – a sort of democratic editorial process?

Do publishers have a responsibility to promote the most “important” news over the most “popular”? If so, who should decide what’s important?

Is “sharability” a measure that should determine a story’s prominence? Is a newspaper’s “front page” archaic in an age when you can catch popular stories through your Facebook feed?

I don’t have the answers, but I think these are important questions. News coverage plays an important role in building, shaping, and sustaining public opinion. What stories get shared, what stories capture the public imagination, what stories get prominence – that matters almost as much as the stories themselves.

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Expertise and Knowledge Sharing

Someone came to me today, a look of I don’t know what to do written across her face. She had a question. Something had come up. She wasn’t sure how to respond. It’s possible I laughed inappropriately.

And then I took a deep breath, asked her some questions, and tried to help troubleshoot the situation. She left with a plan of action.

I’d just gotten back from class where we’d talked about civic education. Specifically, we discussed this colorful story from Myles Horton. Meeting with a group of striking workers in his motel room, the workers “kept throwing out ideas….Finally they said they couldn’t come up with anything, any strategy, or anything to do. They were getting desperate.”

That’s when things get exciting:

They said: “Well, you’ve got more experience than we have. You’ve got to tell us what to do. You’re the expert.” I said: “No, let’s talk about it a little bit more. In the first place, I don’t know what to do, and if I did know I wouldn’t tell you, because if I had to tell you today then I’d have to tell you tomorrow, and when I’m gone you’d have to get somebody else to tell you.”

One guy reached in his pocket and pulled out a pistol and says, “Godddamn you, if you don’t tell us I’m going to killyou.” I was tempted to become an instant expert, right on the spot! But I knew that if I did that, all would be lost and then all the rest of them would start asking me what to do.

I’d been discussing this story not thirty minutes before my advice was sought, yet the moment someone asked me for help I went straight into problem solving mode. I didn’t quite tell her what to do, but I essentially told her what to do. Well, I told her what I would do.

I told her she should come back with other questions any time.

The moment she left I went back to thinking about dear old Myles Horton.

Maybe I should have refused to tell her.

I have a great respect for Horton. In his writing he comes off as thoughtful and open and genuine. The kind of person I’d want to just sit and think with for hours.

And I appreciate where he’s coming from with this story. The rise of expertise can be a problem – convincing “average” people that they are non-experts, that they have no skills, or wisdom, or insights to share.

That belief often becomes deeply internalized. People turn to the “experts” because that is what you’re supposed to do. It’s like turning to the back of the book to find the answers. Even if you try to work out the problem for yourself first – you check the back to make sure you are “right.”

Horton is bold to confront that paradigm – arguing that he would rather risk his life then perpetuate the myth of expertise.

Yet since I first heard Horton’s parable years ago, its continually been coupled with concerns that Horton takes education too far. I’ve even heard some call Horton less than charitable names. I see his point, but really? Seems to be a common consensus.

Like so many things, though, I think it comes down to context.

If someone asked me for advice on what to wear to a certain kind of social gathering, I’d give it freely. I mean, really, that stuff is hard to figure out. It’s like there’s a secret code. But its essentially a factual question. From experience, I’ve learned how to figure it out.

When someone asked for my advice today, I flashed back to not so many years ago when I was encountering situations I didn’t know how to handle, desperately turning to friends for advice asking what should I do???

Ah, I remember those days. And as I helped her think the situation through, I knew that one day – in not so long – she’d be in my seat, helping someone else through some situation they weren’t sure how to handle. So it goes.

But, perhaps, Horton is right to respond as he did in his situation. There is no right answer, no secret formula, no guaranteed path to success. He makes a point of starting his answer with that. In the first place, I don’t know what to do.

It’s when he continues – and if I did know I wouldn’t tell you – that he tends to lose people’s favor.

But it’s what he says after that which is critical: because if I had to tell you today then I’d have to tell you tomorrow, and when I’m gone you’d have to get somebody else to tell you.

If you’re looking for a guideline to go by, that seems like a good one.

I like to think that wasn’t true in my situation. By telling her today, I prepared her for tomorrow.

But in Horton’s case, perhaps it is true – telling them today wouldn’t prepare them to deal with a problem tomorrow. Telling them today would only reinforce the myth of expertise. He certainly thought was the case.

Truth be told, I’m not sure I know where the line is, but you can rest assured – I went back to my visitor shortly thereafter and apologized for possibly stunting her development.

Ah, man, I was just trying to help.

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YUM: A Taste of Immigrant City

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Yum! Literally.

In just a few short weeks – on April 10, 2014 – Somerville non-profit The Welcome Project will host its fifth annual YUM: A Taste of Immigrant City celebration at 7pm at the Armory. Oh, and hey, you can buy your tickets online. ($35 in advance, $40 at the door).

YUM is themed around some of my favorite things: food, community, and diversity.

In Somerville, these things go together like Cuppow a mason jar. I mean, really.

Diversity is at the heart of what makes our community great, and what better way to celebrate our community and our diversity than delicious food?

Food is an integral part of every culture. It tells a story – the dish your grandma used to make. It brings a community together – bread broken among friends. It shares a history, a culture, a climate.

Importantly, YUM doesn’t just celebrate diverse food – delicious though it may be. The event actively supports immigrant-owned restaurants in Somerville.

Independent, locally-owned businesses of all stripes play an important role in any thriving community – as the good folks at Somerville Local First can tell you. But local, immigrant-owned restaurants play a particularly important role.

They are gathering places, informal cultural centers. They are expressions of our many unique voices, and they are central to who we are as a city.

It’s possible that I’m biased – I serve on the board of The Welcome Project and this is my third year chairing the event committee for YUM. But I wouldn’t put so much time and energy into this work if I didn’t think it was important.

It’s no secret that the city is changing. There’s rezoning in Union, it’s an hour wait to get a table in Davis, and I can’t even keep up with the updates from Assembly Square. With more T stops on the way and housing costs already ridiculous, this is our moment to shape the future of the city.

I’m excited about the changes. I am. I’ve watched the city grow over the last decade and I look forward to what I find in the decade to come.

But even as the city changes, we know where our soul lies – and events like YUM help us remember that. We are a diverse, thriving community, and, of course…we love food.

This year, YUM will feature nine immigrant-owned restaurants – which, incidentally, are all Shape Up approved. 2014 restaurants are:

7119520401_0fdaf77bb8_zAguacate Verde, Mexican, Porter Square
Fasika, Ethiopian, East Somerville
Istanbul’lu, Turkish, Teele Square
Los Paisanos, Central American, East Somerville
Masala, Indian and Nepali, Teele Square
The Neighborhood Restaurant, Portuguese, Union Square
Sabur, Mediterranean, Teele Square
Vinny’s at Night, Italian, East Somerville
Yak and Yeti, Nepali and Indian, Ball Square

The event will also honor:
Regina Bertholdo, will receive The Welcome Project’s annual Intercultural City Award. Regina is Director of the Parent Information Center for the Somerville Public Schools and co-founded the Brazilian Women’s Group. Along with her leadership as Director of the Parent Information Center and as the Schools’ Homeless Liaison, Regina is also known throughout the community as a tireless advocate and champion for Somerville’s diverse immigrant community.

Suzanne Sankar will receive The Welcome Project Founder’s Award. Suzanne was a social worker at the Mental Health Clinic at Mystic Housing in the mid 1980s when the public housing development was integrated. After seeing first hand just how poorly new immigrants were being treated as they moved in, she helped lead the effort to create The Welcome Project. Through 23 years of service on The Welcome Project board, Suzanne broadened and deepened the work of the organization.  Suzanne is currently Professor of Practice and Associate Dean for Student Affairs at Simmons School of Social Work.

And just in case you missed the link, you can buy your tickets online.

See you there!

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Freedom of the Mind

In The Public and Its Problems, philosopher John Dewey describes:

The notion that men may be free in their thought even when they are not in expression and dissemination has been sedulously propagated. It had its origin in the idea of a mind complete in itself, apart from action and from objects. Such a consciousness presents in fact the spectacle of a mind deprived of its normal functioning, because it is baffled by the actualities in connection with which alone it is truly mind, and is driven back into secluded and impotent revery.

This is, perhaps, more simply put by Langston Hughes: freedom ain’t freedom when a man ain’t free.

That may sound like mere tautology, but the point is more subtle. In Dewey’s thinking, there is no difference between perception and reality. There is no shadow – as T.S. Elliot would say –  between the idea and the reality, between the motion and the act.

To envision a “mind complete in itself, apart from action and from objects” is to distort reality. It is a hypothetical so far from reality as to be hardly worth entertaining.

This is not how I am used to thinking.

Can men be free in their thought even when they are not in expression?

I think of John Steinbeck’s The Moon is Down – an allegory for the Nazi occupation of Norway. Steinbeck describes how the townspeople – discovering themselves conquered – fight back strongly but subtly. It’s as if a call went through the town: resist. Resist today. Resist tomorrow. Resist. Resist. Resist.

There is power in that final freedom of thought. They are surrounded and outgunned, but their thoughts keep them free. And they resist.

Of course, this may make Dewey’s point for him – the townspeople don’t only resist in thought. They are beaten back that far – their actions and their words are taken from them. But once they decide to resist, once they realize the freedoms they’ve surrendered, they use their remaining freedom – freedom of thought – as a rallying point to fight back, to act.

The power of a mind free in thought even when not in expression speaks to me. The power of a people who will not be broken, who have lost everything but will give up nothing, who will proudly look their captors in the eye and dare them to strike, people who break the rules by following the rules.

But then, again, The Moon is Down is fiction.

John Gaventa considers a dangerous and common “third dimension” of power. “A sense of powerlessness may manifest itself as extensive fatalism, self-depreciation, or undue apathy about one’s situation,” he writes. “The sense of powerlessness may also lead to a greater susceptibility to the internalization of the values, beliefs, or rules of the game of the powerful as a further adaptive response.”

Such a consciousness presents in fact the spectacle of a mind deprived of its normal functioning.

Freedom ain’t freedom when a man ain’t free.

Perhaps Dewey is right. Perhaps we tell ourselves romanticized stories of resistance, of freedom of the mind, so that we can rest easy at night. Assured that we are free, that we still hold power.

Perhaps we are wrong to consider a mind apart from action and from objects. We are our minds, and our minds are us. Our actions shape our thoughts and our thoughts shape our actions. There  is no differentiation. No shadow between the conception and the creation, between the emotion and the response.

Perhaps we’ve been fooling ourselves all along, the spectacle of a mind deprived.

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Judging Morals

As I’ve mentioned, I’ve recently been exploring moral network maps. That is, using a network framework to visualize the ideas, themes and morals that drive a person.

But once you’ve created a network map of your morals…what should you do with it? Should you file it away with last year’s taxes? Perhaps put it on a shelf next to the award you received for acting like an adult? Or maybe you should carry it around with you for consultation at moment’s notice.

Or maybe not.

It may sound absurd when I put it like that, but this cuts to the idea that morals are not – and shouldn’t be – simple rules we set in stone then set aside, dusting them off for occasional validation. This is what makes the network framework such a powerful tool. A moral network is as complex, dynamic, and fluid as the situations we encounter.

I believe that we each have a personal responsibility to develop the best moral networks we can – to be the best person we can be. But how do we know whether our complex, dynamic, and fluid morals are appropriate for our complex, dynamic, and fluid world? How do we know if we are “good”?

The simple answer is that we cannot know, but since that is a somewhat dissatisfying conclusion, I’ll carry the question a little further.

My colleague Peter Levine argues the we should evaluate our moral networks along three dimensions: “1) truth, or at least the avoidance of error; 2) community or justice; and 3) happiness or inner peace.”

I find that somewhat dissatisfying as well. First, I could argue against each item on the list: 1) truth is a construct; 2) communal life is not required for morality and 3) well, let’s just say there are far greater virtues than happiness. Second, I could add to the list – perhaps it’s not only a respect for other people that’s required, but a respect for all other life.

But aside from quibbling over the specifics, more deeply I find this model…too static.

Perhaps it’s my background in physics, but I can’t stop thinking in terms of a universe built upon uncertainty, where observation affects measurement, where the “law” of opposites attract is overridden by a force much stronger.

If our moral networks have complex, dynamic, and fluid reactions to the complex, dynamic, and fluid situations we encounter…then it seems like we need complex, dynamic, and fluid measures to evaluate them by.

What do I mean by these terms?

1) Complex. In network analysis terms, you could look at the density of a map – are there many connections between nodes or few? You could also look at how nodes are connected – is there a path from any node to any other node, or do some ideas form their own, isolated network?

I’d not go so far as to claim there’s an ideal complexity, and I’m not sure complexity should be used to claim that one type of map – eg, all nodes are connected – is better than another. But it does seem like there could be such a thing as too simple a map. If you only had one node, for example, that would be an awful narrow a lens to process everything through.

A sufficiently complex map should have conflict and tension. Life has conflict and tension.

2) Dynamic. Your network should be capable of change. Unless you are in a coma or otherwise dead, your network should respond dynamically to situations.

And this is no trivial matter. It’s easy – perhaps even good – to fall into patterns and set routines. But if habit is the state our inertia naturally draws us into, a dynamic engine must counter that stagnation. It’s not uncommon to complain of people who’ve become too set in their ways. Consistency and sustainability are perfectly admirable traits, but staying the course can also be the road to damnation.

3) Fluid. In physics terms, a fluid is a substance that continually deforms (flows) under applied stress. Perhaps we shouldn’t want our morals to “deform” so greatly, stressed though we may be. But the key thing with a fluid is that…its form is not its substance. A 600-pound octopus can fit through a hole the size of a quarter, and yet it remains, continually, an octopus.

Similarly, our network should be able to survive in tough environs. It should find the cracks and push its way through. It should shift and bend, perhaps, but remain consistent in the way only a fluid can – true to itself until the end.

There is, perhaps, a danger in all this. If you open wide the doors of “good,” then any one could walk through. The traits I’ve described above are arguably a description for anyone who is alive – perhaps not sufficient for an evaluation of morality. Calling morality situational, embracing conflict and change, could be to deny the existence of evil – a topic for another time.

But, I’ll leave with this thought – much comes down to who is doing the judging. I’m not prepared to judge others, and I don’t generally appreciate it when others judge me. I don’t know what is “good” or what is “right,” and I certainly am in no position to apply such criteria to others.

The best I can hope for is to be my own worst critic. To question hard every decision, action, and impulse. To strive to be better tomorrow than I was today.

Was that right or was that wrong? We don’t always have the answer, but, I’d argue, the question should haunt us.

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Action and Isolation

At first glance action and isolation may not seem like antonyms, but consider those words in the following ways:

Action is a process. It is exerting a force, or perhaps, multiple forces. It implies interaction between a least two objects – or perhaps, an object and subject. Action implies change over time.

Isolation is a state of being. It is stillness, loneliness – emptiness, perhaps. It implies a complete lack of interaction. Solitude. Isolation implies stagnation – a lack of change from a lack of interaction.

It is no surprise that society as a whole should favor action. Even the height of American isolationism didn’t imply that proud Americans shouldn’t seek each other’s company. We wanted to be isolated with those who were like us – not isolated on our own.

Action is the foundation of society. If we all went to the woods because we wished to live deliberately, there would be no society left. “Communal life is moral,” wrote Philosopher John Dewey, adding, “that is emotionally, intellectually, consciously sustained.”

Isolation, on the other hand, is generally frowned upon. A list of synonyms includes confinement, desolation, aloofness, detachment, exile, withdrawal. Am I the only one who thinks none of those sound good?

At best, isolation is seen as a phase of development, a period to grow out of. For seven weeks, Siddhārtha Gautama meditated in isolation under the Bodhi tree. He achieved enlightenment and emerged Gautama Buddha. He traveled and taught others what he had learned.

After being baptized, Jesus fasted for forty days and nights in the Judaean Desert – in isolation save the temptations of the devil. He emerged cared for by angels and prepared for public ministry.

Even Thoreau returned from the woods.

But why is isolation bad? Is it positive only as a tool to improve interactions upon our return?

That seems unfair. There is power in stillness, in loneliness – in emptiness even. Isolation can be calming, centering, enlightening.

Perhaps, after achieving enlightenment, we do have a duty to action – to share our lessons of isolation with others. But I can’t shake the feeling that by devaluing isolation we are doing ourselves a disservice.

Not that we should devalue action instead. I imagine we might all fall along a spectrum – some of us gregarious in our most isolated moments, and others isolated in our most gregarious moments.

They say there’s nothing worse than being alone in a crowd, but I’m not prepared to judge you for it.

I could sit under a tree for seven years and fail to achieve enlightenment. Would it be wrong of me not to give up? To remain in isolation seeking an unachievable goal?

Someone recently joked that society would be better if certain people choose isolation over action. The action, of course, is not always for the better.

So where does this leave us? Must we choose action or isolation? Can we embrace both as different modes of being, of existing?

Perhaps most of us will alternate between the two – embracing equally action and isolation. But a few will commit to one path. Always choosing the crowd or always alone.

Some of us will choose isolation.

And – perhaps that’s okay.

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Characters of Westward Expansion

In 1848, Sam Brannan – an ex-communicated Mormon – ran through the streets of San Francisco yelling that there was gold in the foothills. Of course, this man who single-handedly started the gold rush bought up all the picks, pans and mining equipment he could find before announcing the discovery to the world.

In 1859, San Fransisco resident Joshua Norton – an Englishman who came to the city by way of South Africa – declared himself Emperor of these United States. Norton I: Emperor of the United States and Protector of Mexico, later dissolved congress, saying:

It is represented to us that the universal suffrage, as now existing through the Union, is abused; that fraud and corruption prevent a fair and proper expression of the public voice; that open violation of the laws are constantly occurring, caused by mobs, parties, factions and undue influence of political sects; that the citizen has not that protection of person and property which he is entitled to by paying his pro rata of the expense of Government–in consequence of which, WE do hereby abolish Congress.

Over the years, he issued several other decrees, printed his own currency, and continued to insist his title was Emperor. How did San Fransisco respond? They called him Emperor and local establishments accepted his currency.

In 1863, Lillie Coit became an honorary member of the “Knickerbocker 5” volunteer fire fighters unit. This woman wore pants, fought fires, smoked cigars and gambled. It was all very scandalous, except nobody cared – she was just another character in a thriving city. Coit Tower, shaped like a fire hose nozzle (possibly apocryphal), now stands in her memory.

These folks – and many more I’ve failed to mention – may have been a little eccentric, and possibly mentally ill, but they were part of the life blood of San Fransisco. Part of character of westward expansion.

The people who settled California in these decades were exploring the final frontier. They came from around the globe. All of them were outsiders. Many of them hoped to find something in this “undiscovered” country. Most of them were crazy in one sense of the word or another.

The laws of high society hadn’t quite made it out here. The rough and tumble attitude allowed unique characters to thrive. This, of course, wasn’t always for the best – I understand the “Shanghai-ers” formed a union as they carted men off in the night to serve aboard ships.

And this isn’t some ancient, long forgotten history. These are the stories I heard growing up. These are the heroes I was taught to admire.

To be honest, California is still a little rough and tumble and it’s certainly still home to many colorful characters. We may be misfits without high society to keep us proper, but…it’s all good, man. We get by.

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Aiming for Imperfection

Shoot for the moon, the common saying goes. Even if you miss, you’ll land among the stars.

Then, of course, there’s the more skeptical version of that expression:
Shoot for the Moon. If you miss, you’ll end up co-orbiting the Sun alongside Earth, living out your days alone in the void within sight of the lush, welcoming home you left behind.

So what is a person to do? Is it better to dream the impossible dream or to manage expectations?

Are the two mutually exclusive?

Maybe, maybe not. Aiming for perfection is all well and good – it’s when that aspiration meets the real world that things get dicey.

First, there’s the practical problem. If you do all things perfectly all of the time – you really aren’t accomplishing much at all. Perfection is an ideal. It arguably doesn’t exist. As Voltaire wrote in La Bégueule:

Dans ses écrits, un sage Italien
Dit que le mieux est l’ennemi du bien.

In his writings, a wise Italian
says that the best is the enemy of the good
.

Perfect’s not so perfect any more if the task never gets done.

Perhaps perfection is going too far, but perhaps one could still aim for perfection and settle for above average.

The challenge here is not so much where you aim, but where you land. If you really aim for perfection – work for it with everything you’ve got and pour your heart and soul into getting there – will you really be satisfied with good enough? Even if that good enough is above average, that’s still mighty short of perfection.

And that’s a recipe for disappointment. Perhaps even a recipe for assuming failure.

Arguably, that sense of failure could lead you to try harder next time – to be better next time. But, it seems to me, that sense of failure is just as likely to set you off on a downward spiral of accepting defeat before you’ve begun.

I don’t think there’s a formula that works for everyone. But I do wonder if we can blur the lines a little more than they’re typically blurred. Sort of a hope for the best, plan for the worst model.

Perhaps, instead, I would propose something like this:

Shoot for the moon – but if the conditions are unfavorable, reschedule the launch for tomorrow. That’s better than dying in space.

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The Unsinkable Molly Brown

On April 15, 1912, Margaret Brown – a new money socialite who was quite outspoken for a woman of her time – survived the sinking of the Titanic. She helped evacuate other passengers before being pressed to board a life boat herself. She then argued with the Quartermaster, insisting the boat take on more passengers and search for survivors. It’s unclear who won this fight, but my money’s on Molly.

This incident, as well as a series of other misfortunes in her life, earned this daughter of Irish immigrants the moniker “unsinkable.”

It seemed like nothing could pull her down.

She died in 1932 at the age of 65.

A few years ago, I started calling my grandmother unsinkable. After my father passed away, a friend who had also lost a parent described how difficult it was to hear other people talk about their living parents. “And grandparents,” she added. “Grandparents enrage me.”

I could appreciate where she was coming from, but I didn’t know how to respond. I’d lost so many people in my life – a father, an uncle, a cousin, peers – but I still had one grandparent standing. She was unsinkable.

Born on August 23, 1924, my grandmother was a child in the Dakotas when the Dust Bowl swept up. Her family moved to California where she was mercilessly mocked for her accent. Life wasn’t always easy, but she was tough. Whatever life threw her way, she emerged on the other side.

I gather she was scandalously strong and outspoken. Unbecoming for a properly lady, perhaps, but with that working class Irish attitude that expects pain with a tightened jaw. Not that she didn’t complain.

Her physical ailments were many. I lost count of how many times she had cancer over the years. Her recent life became a series of regular hospital visits. It always seemed dire, but she always came back. Unsinkable.

She passed away on March 17, 2014 at the age of 89.

Unsinkable til the end.

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