Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Doris Kearns Goodwin, University of Chicago

Doris Kearns Goodwin
I am reading Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl and have been interested in the ways people can find meaning in their lives.  Frankl posits that there are three main ways to do this; through your work, through your relationships, or by sheer will.  When I saw Doris Kearns Goodwin (DKG) talk this week, it was clear that she is lucky (although that word choice is not meant to diminish how hard she works) to draw meaning from both her relationships and her work.

She started talking about “the men [she] has spent [her] life with”, and it took me a minute to realize she was talking about the historical figures she has written about, and not her father, her husband, or her three sons (because she spoke about those personal relationships in such a kind and significant manner).

At the end of her speech about the book, she spoke for a few brief moments about why she thinks she was drawn to history.  At this point, I put my pencil down and just listened to her, because it was so touching.  When she was six years old, her dad taught her how to keep score of a baseball game, logging every play with a special code (much as I imagine she does when compiling research).  When he would return home from work in the evenings, he would ask her how their team, the Brooklyn Dodgers had done, and she would regale him with a retelling of the match, play by play.  She said she quickly learned the power of the narrative because if she started her story with “The Dodgers won!” he’d have a hard time maintaining interest in the rest of her story.  Her dad passed away when she was in her twenties, before her sons got to meet him.  She said that when the Dodgers moved to Los Angeles, she had a hard time following baseball for a few years.  But then a boyfriend took her to a Red Sox game and her love was restored.  She and her family have been season ticket holders for thirty years and she said that sometimes when she’s at a game, she can close her eyes, feel the sun on her face, hear the action from the game, and imagine that she’s sitting there with her dad.  Then she opens her eyes and where her dad would be sitting is one of her sons.  See what I mean about finding meaning in her relationships?

One of the questions at the end of her speech was about the three main women in the book: Edith Roosevelt, Helen (“Nellie”) Taft, and Ida Tarbell.  Each of the women were distinctly different; Edith happily played the role of wife and mother taking care of the home.  Nellie, intelligent and ambitious, thought she would never marry, but Taft valued these qualities and she became very active in the public life of her husband’s office.  Ida Tarbell was a muckraking journalist who never married, but was a critical member of the press in the early 1900’s.  The tie between all three women, though, is that each found such significant meaning in some aspect of their life that really propelled them to success both outwardly, and I assume internally as well.  DKG spoke briefly about being a professional woman; when she was a young professor at Harvard, she went to teaching part-time, and shortly thereafter at a cocktail party, overheard someone say “what ever happened to Doris Kearns?”.  She said  “I wanted to hit them over the head with a book!  I had three boys!  That’s what happened!”  In her response, she said that women still have a hard job finding a way to balance their roles.  But what an example to hold up for what can be achieved!  As David Axelrod said later in the night, she’s a “national treasure”. 

Kearns Goodwin has a new book out, The Bully Pulpit, about Teddy Roosevelt (TR), Howard Taft, and the role of journalists during their presidencies.  Her enthusiasm in sharing her work is evident in the girth of her books (this one clocks in at 750 pages with 150 pages of notes and citations), and in the way she gained energy when sharing the stories she uncovered.  This is just the start of her book tour, but I would be surprised if her passion waned at all.  If you get a chance to see her, I am confident that you will see how, in addition to her relationships, she draws meaning from her work.  If you don’t get to see her in person, hopefully the notes can convey this conclusion. 

(photo credit: nndb.com)

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Sandra Day O'Connor - Elmhurst College - May 30, 2013

Justice Sandra Day O'Connor
A couple of weeks ago, Griff and I went to see retired Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor talk at Elmhurst College.  Much to our pleasure, she was as concise as Neil DeGrasse Tyson was long-winded.  (To Griffin’s great pleasure, she wouldn’t even partake in a question and answer session!)  I have seen Sandra Day O’Connor interviewed on The Daily Show, and I have heard her interviewed on Fresh Air.  Griffin’s dad has attended luncheons with her, as have some family friends of my parent’s.  Each time I saw her interviewed, or heard anecdotes about spending time with her, one word continually came up, “feisty”.  She refuses to be pigeon-holed as the “swing vote”, and stands up for what she believes with great conviction. 

When Sandra Day O’Connor graduated from Stanford Law School, forty law firms refused to interview her for a position because she was a woman.  In response to that, she worked without pay as a deputy county attorney, sharing an office with the receptionist.  It speaks volumes about her gumption, work ethic, and ability that she went on to work on the Supreme Court, and that the law school at Arizona State is now named after her. 

One of my favorite parts about SDOC is that she retired from the Supreme Court to care for her husband, who was suffering from Alzheimer’s disease.  Here was a woman who had accomplished so much in her professional life, retiring despite her ability to go on, to care for the man she loved.  It’s a healthy reminder of what’s important in life. 

Much about her demeanor cracked me up.  Both she and Joyce Carol Oates were what I have been calling “adorably frail”, and both also carried a purse.  For some reason, that really stuck out to me.  It was like a subtle reminder that despite her grandiose influence, she still wanted to make sure that her chapstick and Kleenex were handy.  (Coincidentally, in the Sunday NYT a few days later, there was an article about women politicians, the purses they carry, and what they signify. My favorite part was when they talked about how some male aides have to carry around the female politician’s purses.  That feels like a really nice turn in the women’s movement!)

For the introduction, Elmhurst College tried a new approach by showing a video of students talking about what values mean to them.  While well done, it was boring and seemed like a waste of time.  Much to my enjoyment, Sandra Day O’Connor seemed to feel the same way.  I don’t think she even looked at the screen! 

Finally, as she took the lectern, there was heavy applause from the audience.  While trying to quiet everyone down so she could begin, she squawked out, “you’re not even going to like me at the end of this!”  Not true, Sandra Day.  I liked you even more. 

The theme was clear, her message spot-on, and the solution was evident.  Very enjoyable.  

(picture from Parade.com)

Tuesday, April 30, 2013

The Great Race - Two Perspectives

Before a real race.  The matching shirts are a story for another time.

BY Melissa Kinsey and her daughter 

In my imagination, I am racing through the forest like Daniel Day-Lewis in "Last of the Mohicans," chasing the deer ahead of me.  I run low to the ground, fairly dancing as I maneuver over tree roots, rocks and other obstacles in pursuit of my prey.

In reality, I am a middle-aged mother and my "prey" is my young-adult daughter, who took a sizable lead on the run out and, having slapped me a low-five when passing on her return, is running strong ahead of me.

With the aid of the gentle downhill, I have picked up speed and confidence and am running at near top-speed.  As I hit the flat part of the run, I spy Natalie ahead and immediately envy her relaxed running form.  But she is not as far ahead as I had thought and there is a chance I can catch her.  Knowing I will struggle on the hill just before the final stretch, I kick into high gear while on the flats.  I have given this run pretty much my all, but pride allows me to dig just a little deeper and I push just that much harder.

When I see Natalie turn the last corner at the crest of the hill, I resolve to take that hill strong for a change as we have just a short distance remaining to the finish line.  My legs ache and my lungs burn but I pump my arms and push, push to the top.  Stomach churning now, pending victory allows me to ignore it and I break into a sprint.  As I approach, Natalie glances over her shoulder and I register the look of shock on her face.  She picks up her pace but too late!  I surge ahead and hang on past the water fountain and to victory!

As I turn to watch Natalie cross the finish line, I raise my arms in victorious display.  "I can't believe I beat you!" I manage to get out, breathlessly.  Eerily unwinded, she replies: "I wish I'd have known we were racing . . . "

Hm.  Still a victory, right?  And anyway, isn't every run a race?!

I never even knew we were racing.  I innocently thought this was another mother-daughter run on our favorite trail, Tryon Creek State Park in Portland, Oregon.  In what had become somewhat of a routine, we belted out the 4 Non-Blondes feminist anthem “What’s Up?” on the drive over, and I was still hearing the “yeah yeah yeah’s” as I wound my way along the path. 

Tryon Creek is one of the best places to run in the Portland metropolitan area.  Our favorite loop is a 4-mile out-and-back route that starts with a wide path and a downward slope, but transitions into a single-file path with an array of cramp-inducing hills and a variety of obstacles (rocks, roots, rivulets, and bridges included) after a half-mile.  Knowing that my mom likes to run solo (I’d been told, “I can’t talk!” and “stop talking to me!” enough times), and that her pace is typically considerably slower than mine, I started out strong to put some distance between us. I was enjoying the light rain that I had come to expect from Oregon, the sound of the wind in my ears, and the pending feeling of success against a worthy opponent (although in this case, I viewed the trail as the opponent - not my mother).  I careened up and over the undulating terrain; navigating whatever obstacles I approached, willing myself to the top of the final ascent before turning around.

Passing my mom on the way back I silently slipped her a sisterly five, thinking how great it was that she was out here pushing herself at her age. "Good for her!" I thought to myself.  And with that, I eased up.  With an idea of the distance between us, and the knowledge that I’d have to stand around in the cold rain waiting for her, it seemed, at the time, like the best decision. 

As I was mounting the final, grueling hill, the slower pace caught up with me.  Funnily enough, the slower I took the hill the harder it felt on my legs, the unnatural rhythm hindering my pace.  Finally cresting the beast and approaching the finish line I heard huffing and puffing behind me and as I turned, alarmed, I was surprised to see my mom, with a look of focused determination, "sprinting" at near top-speed.  At this point, I knew what she was doing, and feebly tried to will my legs to go faster.  It was no use.  As she struggled past me and crossed the finish line, she lifted her arms in victory, and ever the gracious winner, shouted, "I beat you!"

Frick. I should have known better.  After all, I am my mother's daughter and everything is a race.

Saturday, April 27, 2013

My Neighborhood

I always thought that what I lack in the ability to make friends with strangers, I more than made up for in my commitment to structure and routine.  Since I moved in with my husband four years ago, I have taken the same route to the park.  Between walks by myself, walks with Griffin, and runs through the neighborhood, I sometimes take the same path up to three times a day.  I have probably looped the 1-mile track around the park over 1,000 times.  For awhile, I feared that doing it with such frequency would lead me to tire of it, but after four years, I no longer have that concern.  Though the path may be the same, the scenery changes.  
I can tell when the man on the corner has his kids for the weekend, or when his girlfriend has stayed the night.  I know when kids go to college, or new parents welcome a baby into their lives.  Without knowing their names, I find it amazing that I can know so much about them; stringing together what I know to be true with conjecture that is conjured up over years of observation.
My favorite neighbors are the ones with character, as I can easily assign names to them.  “Hoo-Ah”, named for his vanity plate, never acknowledges my presence, but I know that I’d run to his house in case of an emergency because of the perception of a strong military training.  “Weird Bird Lady” is the lady at the end of our street who walks around with a parrot on her shoulder, lets her plants grow out of control (much to the consternation of our uptight condo association), and who had the gall to install a front door with a round window rather than the square ones that the rest of us have to live with.  (They fined her $75).  “Panda’s Owner” is the elderly woman who walks her dog Panda, a black and white Pomeranian who should have been named “Bandit” for the distinctive black mask around her (his?) eyes.  Somehow it was easier to ask what her dog’s name was than what her name was.  My interactions with Panda’s Owner were varied.  One day she told me how Panda “loves counting squirrels” on their walks.  But that interaction would be followed up a week later with my asking, “How many squirrels have you seen?” and getting a response of “what…?”  I haven’t seen Panda or her (his?) owner in over a month, and last week, I saw a large garbage container in her driveway.  Bonnie walks her dog Annie regularly when it’s warm, and only rarely when it’s cold.  What I know about Bonnie is that she has three daughters and that she could “do without” one of her son-in-laws. 
Occasionally, I get positive reinforcement from the elderly gentlemen whose homes I pass.  Bob has run over 50 marathons and is closing in on his goal of running a marathon in every state.  We wave to each other in the mornings, and he shouts encouragement to me when I run by.  “Run happy!”, “Make sure you ENJOY your run!”.  One time, he raced me to the water tower. I think he’s embarrassed that I know he smokes early in the morning. 
One of the houses we pass is a big brown house with few windows facing our path.  Because of the lack of windows, I don’t “know” much about the inhabitants; only that they drive a silver CRV that frequently has large Goodwill bags in the trunk.  The most surprising encounter I had was with this resident.  It must have been a Sunday evening, because Griffin was with me.  As we passed his driveway, an old man with a rugged, scratchy voice yelled after us, “Hey!  Come back here!”  Fearing we were somehow in trouble, we turned around with trepidation.  “Wait here!  I’ll be right back.”  He trotted into his garage and came out carrying pruning shears.  I could feel Griffin tense up beside me.  He does not like confrontation.  The man slowly approached his carefully manicured rose bush, cut off a single stem with a pink flower in its prime, and handed it to me gently.  “I always see you walking out here,” he said, “and I like that you do that”.  It made my week.  I haven’t seen him since, but I know he’s still there because nothing on the exterior of the house has been suspicious.  No new cars in the driveway.  No “For Sale” sign in the yard. 
And what I’ve learned from the old man, Bob, and Bonnie, is that while I have been observing my neighbors for years, they have been observing me too.  They’ve made their own nicknames for me.  One lady told me that she and her husband refer to Griffin and I as “The Active Couple”.  And what do they know about me?  They’ve probably picked up on the fact that I don’t like change.  I assume they know I value exercise.  That I like breathing fresh air.  That sometimes I walk, and sometimes I run, but always, I take the same path by their house.  And maybe that’s my way of developing friendships; with consistency, persistence, a gentle wave in the morning and a smile on my face. 

Friday, April 19, 2013

Neil DeGrasse Tyson, Elmhurst College, April 4, 2013

Sneaking dinner in the church.  It's as bad as he gets.

The dinner he's sneaking.

We can never take a good self-photo.

He's probably still talking...

I am still recovering from the Neil DeGrasse Tyson lecture.   One of the reasons I like going to these lectures is that we get a chance to see experts in their field discussing relevant issues.  They share a perspective that is more informed than my own, and their insight is interesting.  There is no doubt that Neil DeGrasse Tyson is smart.  There is also no doubt that he is one of the pre-eminent astrophysicists of our time. But one would think that someone who studies the vastness of space might have a little more humility.  I usually find extreme intelligence endearing, and am willing to forgive mild social ineptitude because of it.  In this case, though, there was a sense of hubris and superiority that I found irritating. 

A few things that really made the talk difficult for me:
1)   He went over the allotted amount of time.  We got there an hour early (on the recommendation of Elmhurst College), but we weren’t allowed to leave the premises.  We left 2 hours into the lecture, and a friend of mine who also attended said that he went on for another 90 minutes.  Yowza.   Anyone who knows me knows that I do not appreciate abuses of time.  Especially if I’m hungry, which I was.
2)   There was no outline or structure to the speech.  It was extemporaneous and much of it felt off the cuff.  He straddled the line between lecturer and amateur comedian, which was awkward!
3)   Much of the lecture focused on failure; the failure of our government to properly fund research (not unfounded), the failure of our government to properly acknowledge scientists and their contributions (which seemed a little self-serving, although a valid argument), and the failure of our scientists and engineers (for what seemed like 40-minutes, he highlighted bridge collapses, levee breakages, and structural oversights, with no real solution other than, “we have failed”).
4)   There was not enough time spent discussing outer space, which we had been excited to learn about.  At the very end, he discussed the vastness of space and how miniscule our existence really is.  It was humbling!  And fascinating. 

The highlight of the speech was when he discussed the asteroid that is supposed to enter our orbit in 2029, and then maybe hit earth in 2036.  The fact that we are able to know what impact (literally) it would have is absolutely mind-boggling to me.  I find it incredibly encouraging that we are curious enough to study it, and smart enough to figure it out.

All in all, a disappointing lecture, but sprinkled in there were facts that made us marvel at the wonder of our universe :)  And for that, I’m still glad that we went.  

the notes...

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

NY Times Top Ten

Top Ten

If you read no other article in the NYT this month, make sure you read this one.  

It's eye-opening, disappointing, fascinating and riveting.  No wonder Michael Moss won a Pulitzer!

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Chicago Forward: A Discussion with Mayor Rahm Emanuel, January 16, 2013, Field Museum

Rahm Emanuel

Maybe not "glimmering", but certainly striking.  The Chicago skyline taken from the museum campus.

Our first talk of 2013 was with Rahm Emanuel at the Field Museum.  It was put on by one of my go-to groups, Trib Nation and was part of their Chicago Forward series.  Christina and I saw Rahm Emanuel talk (also at the Field Museum) shortly before he was inaugurated in as Mayor.  Half way through his term, it felt like a good time to check-in and get his thoughts on achievements and plans for the next two years.

One thing I noticed that really impressed me was how natural of a speaker he is.  When asked a complex (or multi-part) question, you could see him outlining his response (handy for me), and making an effort to clearly and succinctly answer it.  I also noticed his use of alliteration ("We aren't making kids choose between math and music, art and athletics, reading and recess").  I have a feeling that's taught in speech classes -- but it also seemed like something that flowed naturally for him.  He also positions his views in a way that makes you think that anyone who disagrees with him is terribly wrong.  For example, when he was talking about the teacher's strike, he said, "I put the kids first".  I don't know the intricacies of the teacher negotiations, but I bet they felt like they were putting the kids first too.  Subtle, strategic, and likely effective.

I wish that I lived in Chicago so I could call him "my Mayor" -- but the distance doesn't diminish my appreciation for his work.