About Being A Letter

Most of my messages are based on books that I have read. The most influential of these has always been the Bible. I was told as a child that it contained all I needed to know about the meaning and purpose of life. Such a notion has provided adequate motivation to make its acquaintance a daily habit. I have subsequently often found small things in its contents, which are very intriguing, to me at least, and allow my imagination to ramble along lines of reasoning uniquely my own.

Take for example a comment made by the Apostle Paul in his second letter to the Christian community in the Greek city of Corinth. This is a group he had founded, but it was also one that caused him a good deal of grief. It seems appropriate that he considered himself to be their spiritual father for their behavior mirrored that of many a mischievous child.

Defending his intrusion as a disciplining parent, he asked if he needed a letter of introduction to them in order to justify his attempts to impart some much needed guidance. Many of us as children have been on the receiving end of such a rhetorical question. No answer is really being sought by our parental authorities. Rather it is simply an introduction to the current lesson on proper deportment.

In the case of the Corinthian problem children the good man answered his own question by telling them that they were his letter; one written by their lord Jesus. The implication was that its contents were not of introduction but of commendation; another’s assessment of Paul’s efficacy as a parent. It is his use of this metaphorical image where the cogs in my brain begin to churn even though I have no obvious association with the apostle’s hard core case of delinquents.

My mental meandering begins with the simple act of demystifying the authorship of my own revealing epistle by asking, “Whose letter am I?” As a child, the answer would be almost exclusively my parents. As an older perpetrator of mischief the answer would be much more complex; teachers, friends, employers, a spouse and ultimately my children of natural and supernatural origin.

A follow-up question is far more challenging to contemplate. If I am a letter, what is my message? I can best answer that by telling you what I want it to be. Disregarding titles, although I have attained a few of them during my career, my preference would be for comments – and hopefully compliments – about my character. Honorable, trustworthy, loyal, truthful, compassionate, dependable and loving are the words I would want to hear spoken in eulogy at my funeral, if I could only manage to be in attendance for that particular occasion. Suffice it to say, I will be elsewhere.

What about you? If you think of your life as being someone else’s letter, what would your message be? What we value says a lot about who we are. The pursuit of fame and fortune seems to dominate the news as the popular measures of a person’s worth. At least these are the things that will make you newsworthy, if that is indeed your goal. If your self-appraisal is not all that commendable in your own eyes, it is not too late to make a change. That is one of the joys of life; we are never actually done living – learning, maturing and developing – until the eulogist has cause to prepare his or her comments concerning the message of our life.

Piling On!

A popular game on the playground, when I was in grade school, was one we called Piling On. The rules were simple: tackle some unsuspecting dupe and then encourage everyone else to pile on. The goal was to crush the guy on the bottom, a condition we found to be extremely delightful for some reason. And this being our prepubescent years, we never saw any reason to let the girls play. It would take a few more years for us to discover that gender equality has its merits.

The only reason this game has come to mind after all these years is watching the reaction to the Muller Report. No matter who you are or what your political affiliation might be, it seems the name of the game is that of piling on. Everyone has a comment to make. Well, almost everyone. I have to admit that I have not seen any quotes coming from Princess Charlotte yet, but give her time. She is cute, adorable and extremely fashionable, which are all perquisites for having highly sought after opinions. Just ask the family members that no one seems to be able to keep up with.

My own opinion is merely an echo of a wonderful line written by Eva Stachniak, author of The Winter Palace. Regarding the court intrigue surrounding Catherine the Great’s rule over Imperial Russia she writes “Life is a game and every player is cheating.”

This is perhaps the best executive summary of the Mueller Report. No redaction needed.

Concessions

My new initiative concerns my website. It is old, as am I. It can be renewed and in a way, so can I. The transformation for us both is essentially internal. For me it’s a change of perspective and for the website it’s a change in plug-ins, widgets and content. But once these modifications are complete the appearance of the website will be different than before, while I will remain the same old man I see in the mirror on those occasional mornings, when I determine there is a need to shave.

The transformation of us both is taking place, as usual, with the help of someone younger than myself, someone more computer literate, and certainly someone more prone to take risks in the digital world. Her presence confers on me the mantel of being in charge, while remaining clueless as to the actual functions she is implementing, which need to be activated to achieve the desired result.

This is all humbling to my aging ego. But if I am to make progress in the current age of communication, then a little humility is an acceptable currency I can afford to expend in the name of progress. There are some other concessions I must also make if I am to look my best in the virtual marketplace. Chief among them is a new identity.

It has been several years since another young friend set me up with a website promoting my consulting services for non-profit organizations. The emphasis of the content then was to highlight my experience with strategic planning, budgeting, accounting, financing, fund raising, and volunteer recruitment. Good stuff all, but no longer in keeping with what I truly want my retirement life to entail.

Escaping the bean counter imprimatur of my professional career, I am resurrecting one of my youthful aspirations and that is the role of being a writer. My new website will promote this identity first and foremost, while allowing the past to remain just that in an honorable fashion befitting its former success.

My seconded concession is closely related to the first and that is a change in persona. Self-promotion has never been a characteristic of my work. Low-key, restrained, and stable are the terms the people who know me would likely use if asked to describe me in one word or less. And in public that will continue to be the case. I am those things as I occupy any tangible arena.

But on the web a new character will be evident; one who is letting his various forays into event planning, marketing and public relations to further define his enhanced identity by using titles like producer and director as well as that of writer. Once the website is completely updated, it will hopefully justify my claim to such fame.

A modicum of humility will also be in evidence as I make a third concession in order to moderate the excess of the cosmetic appearances of a new identity and persona. This concerns my pursuit of being published. In all likelihood my website will be the extent of my public presence. So the site is going to suffer from serious overload of content rather than just containing headlines, blurbs and images of book covers that published authors can get by with. They have more, which you can find on a library bookshelf or download from a service like Audible.com. I am not surrendering to something inevitable, just resigning myself to the internet being my one and only publishing house.

The trade-off is a change in attitude. Bean counters are not allowed to be creative or frivolous. That mindset is all behind me now. The point is to enjoy these moments to the fullest. If self-proclaimed titles are all I have, then I say let’s celebrate even this modicum of success and have a little fun.

Humorist Will Rogers once quipped about the income tax making bigger liars out of us than golf ever did. Now we have the internet and our websites offer a far more robust opportunity for fibbing than Rogers ever imagined. And once the weather improves, I’ll start working on my golf game.

The Cupboard is Bare – Temporarily

I have spent the morning stripping away the content of my website. Built with the materials of a now extinct management career, the substance of what I long ago placed there changed little and became essentially obsolete as far as reflecting my retirement interests. So now my digital cupboard is bare, but only temporarily. For I am also in the process of compiling new stuff to present in a new format that will hype what I plan to do during the remainder of my earthly existence.

This is not happening in isolation, however. I have engaged the services of someone more experienced than me at web design. It goes without saying – although I will say it anyway – that I am working with someone younger and female. This does not mean that younger males lack the necessary skills to design a highly functional website. It simply means that my easily shattered ego prefers the gentler reprimands of the kinder sex when I am being told that something is intuitively obvious. My intuit falls far short of the obvious.

I am working on one seemingly obligatory page and that is a bio about yours truly. This is actually a rather difficult thing to do for someone who has spent a marginally successful career without being a self-promoter. In the new age such a statement goes with the territory of traveling the internet’s multi-lane, high speed highway. This is a point I am willing to concede, but you will find me cruzin’ at the posted speed limit, while slowing down traffic no doubt. I will be easy to recognize since I will be the only one using his turn signals when changing lanes. This kind of change will be a rare feat, but will occur when absolutely necessary.

What I primarily want my website to do is highlight three aspects of my career, which generally went unnoticed (partly due to that self-promotion avoidance factor resolutely lodged in my character) and which I intend to do some more of as time permits. In addition to my Bio page you will also find pages labeled Writer, Producer, and Director. These seemingly creative exploits might appear to run contrary to my primary role as a non-profit administrator with an accounting background. But I did do them. In fact I enjoyed doing them and hope to do some more, even if only on a diminutive scale, such as can be encompassed on a computer, laptop, or iPad screen. In an old guy’s retirement world, size does not matter.

No one ever wanted to hear me use the words creative and accountant in the same sentence, especially when applied to me. So I am shedding one of these appellations. I am no longer an accountant. Hopefully I can lay some claim to being creative. The pages of my new website will tell. It may prove to be worth your while to stay tuned. It will certainly be worth mine.

What We Don’t Know

What we don’t know won’t hurt us. That is a silly maxim we use to justify ignorance as the best antidote to worry. When we know things, we tend to obsess over them or over our inability to use such knowledge to further our education, careers and (eventually) our retirement.

What we don’t know is an ever present companion throughout our lives. It starts at birth, even though we are too enamored of life just then to know it. It is there when we discover for the first time that hot things burn, sharp things impale, and people we innately trust can be the source of unbearable trauma. It haunts every school test, entrance exam, first crush, blind date and marriage proposal. It has the last word in our choice of jobs that have nothing to do with our college major. It is the extent of what we fear when we consider, however briefly, our own mortality.

What we don’t know can be remedied to a limited extent. A lifetime is too short for anyone to become an expert in all things academic, polemic, or legalistic. Big Blue, or one of its heartless cousins, has won at Jeopardy, chess and the Chinese surround game known as GO. But we can learn. Even old dogs can learn new tricks. That thought became evident to me once again as I sat through another workshop to improve on my skills, this one on web site design. I came away knowing at least one thing I personally can do to improvement this site, which bears my name. The only question remaining is will I actually take the time to implement this new found knowledge. The responsibility worries me.

What we don’t know won’t improve us. We can retain the dubious gift of stasis by remaining ignorant. Worry won’t actually keep a respectful distance from our psyche, but true joy will. Vision, attainment and the gratification that comes with success will. Neglect learning and your smart phone will retain a higher IQ that its owner and your car’s built in GPS will have a better answer to the question “Who am I” since it will at least know the answer to the question “Where am I”; and this without input from you.

What we don’t know will remain the answer to all life’s questions and most of our problems.

Short Order Cook

One of the joys of being retired is waking up each morning at your leisure rather than responding to the dictates of an alarm clock. Another is having the time to engage in activities denied you when work took priority in setting your agenda and family dictated how you used your otherwise “free” time. The irony of all this is that, now that I supposedly have all the time in the world, I have selected to fill some of my new found chronological wealth with a volunteer opportunity that requires me to set the alarm for a time of morning even earlier than when I had a day job.

I am learning to be a cook of a short order nature, which has nothing to do with the quick pace of the preparation, such as you would find in a small town café. Rather it refers to the short list of menu items I am responsible to produce. In point of fact there is only one. I am learning to cook sap collected drip by precious drip from maple trees with the goal of making pure maple syrup.

This past Wednesday morning the alarm went off at 4:30am. This allowed me just enough time to put on my work clothes and make the pre-dawn drive to my first lesson in sap boiling. The term used by my mentor is that I was a shadow cook. Despite my ephemeral status I still felt the frigid conditions of our open-air shanty. Extreme cold has no mercy for shadows, despite our lack of depth.

Here is another point of fact: the temperature was too cold for the sap to run. It had more sense than I did and stayed within the warm confines of the tree. But we had a school group coming to learn about making syrup from nature’s own raw material and so we had to fake it in order to provide a truly educational experience. Essentially we cooked water to make the steam, which has the same appearance as the vapor arising from boiling sap. It simply lacked the sweet, sticky residue, which is a natural by-product of reducing the sap down to the necessary sugar level. The kids didn’t seem to mind. They were out of the classroom for the day. And I am sure that their parents didn’t mind since their children came home steamed cleaned.

The process we demonstrated was low tech, dating back to the Civil War era. There is a rectangular firebox on top of which sits a ten-gallon rectangular tank. The fire we build using oak and maple wood burns at more than 1000 degrees Fahrenheit and over the course of a nine hour period – on a day when there is an ample supply of sap – you can reduce 100 gallons of sap down to about 3 gallons of amber liquid with about a 62% sugar content. During that time the cooks monitor the steady flow of raw sap into the tank in proportion to the amount of water vapor lost into the atmosphere; impurities are skimmed off; and like any cooking process on the stove at home, the liquid is constantly stirred to prevent it from being scorched on the bottom of the pan.

Those final three gallons of near perfect maple bliss are then transferred to the finishing house, where the liquid is refined even further until the sugar content is slightly above 66%. This is the requisite percentage that is acknowledged to constitute pure maple syrup. It is bottled, labeled and set aside for distribution to the volunteers, whose combined labor produced such liquid gold. I am anxiously awaiting the opportunity to bathe my homemade waffles in this sumptuous concoction at my leisure, in a warm kitchen, well after sunrise, when my shadow status will be well transformed by a substantial appetite.

Generosity or My Lack of It

I like to think of myself as a generous person, but on certain occasions my lack of this quality is quite apparent. This unseemly feature of my character usually raises its ugly head from time to time, when someone within earshot says something I simply cannot abide. Strangely, this is most often the case when someone expresses well-meaning, but poorly reasoned, advice. If I have redeeming quality, therefore, it is that the lack of generosity is not about money, food or controlling the remote.

A friend says of me that I do not suffer fools easily. That explanation, however, strikes me as a bit biased in my favor since it implies that the person or opinion I am speaking counter to is a fool, which may be true but is not a fair assumption to use as a blanket assessment of my opposition. The folly of speaking up may rest solely on me, after all. Verbosity, sometimes with lethal consequences, has plagued me for most of my life. So I would prefer to simply state that there are times when I feel the overwhelming need to set the record straight – or to at least express a necessarily contrary opinion, foolish or otherwise.

My target this time around concerns a recent sermon I heard on the topic of generosity. Sadly, mine is a less than generous response as my accountant’s brain jerked its knee in light of what was said by a well-meaning pastor dispensing what was purported to be godly advice. From my contrarian perspective it laid the groundwork for potentially addressing the topic of generosity as it was just one segment of a sermon series. This gave the message a cliff-hanger appeal to tune in next week, but the enforced delay in waiting for the next installment of the message merely taxed my patience, a virtue of which I also expend as reluctantly as any miser caressing his fortune. Perhaps this is because patience for me is a very dish. There’s not much depth to it and any amount of taxation threatens to create an arid wasteland.

First and foremost, Jesus did not deal in fractions. A tithe was a percentage of one’s resources, usually defined as 10 percent. However, the compounding of references to tithing in the Old Testament places the cumulative impact on one’s annual income somewhere between 20 and 30 percent. Not that the amount is egregious, thereby making it as objectionable as any Congressional tax plan. It is just that with Jesus you are all in to the point that you are no longer your own person, let alone a possessor of property and resources outside the bounds of God’s sovereignty. As was said often in the sermon, “God owns everything.” We might therefore consider adding God’s name to our checking accounts, car registrations and home mortgages.

Second, there I a tendency among those conscientious souls of Christian identity to marvel that their life-long practice of tithing has miraculous resulted in their never lacking for any of life’s necessities. I do admire those who have maintained this level of fiscal discipline over the course of many years. My less than generous opinion, however, concerns the projection of miracle status to financial conservancy. This assertion may seem blasphemous. It certainly lacks a charitable perspective. My contention, though, is that those committed souls who make the choice to tithe – and especially to set aside their 10 percent as their first expenditure out of each paycheck – also make other related choices, which encourage budgeting even in an informal manner akin to flying by the seat of one’s pants. Knowing you have less to spend inspired one to make those other expenditures just as strategically significant as the choice to tithe. Hence, you are more likely to confine your spending to the remaining balance in your wallet or checkbook.

This inherent relationship between tithing and budgeting leads to my third point. The tithe was just one component of a fiscal strategy designed to create individual wealth among the people of a burgeoning nation. And there are more verses about these contingent components than there are about tithing. The rules are complex and cover animal husbandry, horticulture, slavery, debt cancellation, restrictions on labor – think a Sabbath Day’s rest and the Year of Jubilee – and much, much more. Yet it is the tithe which so often is extracted from this socio-economic structure and promoted as a stand-alone precept. “Bah! Humbug!” says my inner Scrooge.

If you want a true representation of what generosity is you will find it in the last imaginative tale Jesus shared with his most intimate followers. It is known for its portrayal of two groups of people, classified as being either sheep or goats. The sheep are rewarded for their generosity, described for them in this way: For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.

And when those in the sheep category asks when did they do these things for their lord and king, he answered in keeping with one of the most dramatic aspects of what it means to be a follower of Christ: I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me. There is no mention of a tithe in this story. Rather it is about personal sacrifice taking form in various ways without any reference to money and percentages.

Generosity is a heart-felt condition not an accounting equation. It is not about how much but about what and for whom a gift is made. The reward for the sheep, the representation of the truly generous person, is excessive in its comparison to the transient nature of sharing one’s food, clothing, shelter and fellowship: Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. Not only is the exchange rate in this story excessive, it is eternal. What a wonderful way to consider the outcomes of one’s own generosity.

Picturing Time As A Stream

There are two streams running through the property where my daughter has her horse rescue and training facility. It is a pleasant experience to sit there and listen to the sound of the water coursing its way along the rocky stream beds. It is also pleasant to look upon as each miniscule cascade contributes to the language of the rippling water in this idyllic setting.

Only one thing is certain as I enjoy this opportunity for reverie. I can only experience what is immediately present. Each stream’s origin and their eventual destinations are beyond my knowledge. I can imagine these things and speculate on them based on prior experience. But it is my creative ability, which allows reason to credibly shape a natural outcome. Unless I move my experience upstream or down, the comfort of my informed imagination will have to suit my curiosity about both ends of the water’s ceaseless flow.

Think of time as a stream. This is the final point made by Richard E. Neustadt and Ernest R. May in their book Thinking in Time: The Uses of History for Decision Makers. I have been using their advocacy for a certain method in critical thinking to inspire my own series of messages these past few weeks. I am a fan of this form of analysis as well as celebrant for their sense of history as a valuable tool and a key component of their methodology.

My own love of history finds affirmation in their work as they insist that a prudent person will prepare himself with a surfeit of historical precedence by which he can make appropriate applications and suggest reasonable solutions to perplexing problems. The study of history is a walk upstream to better determine origins as a prerequisite to understanding the cascading features of current events. The walk downstream is to assess the landscape for making the next safe haven along the water’s journey. Seasoned interpreters make the best guides when tramping along the water’s edge.

I wrote about this concept not long ago, while using a completely different source for my inspiration. It is what we can call the Ebenezer Effect, whereby we can take the same vow as Charles Dickens’ inimitable character known to us all as Ebenezer Scrooge. He famously proclaimed at the end of A Christmas Carol that he would honor all three spirits he encountered during his yuletide adventure and live in the past the present and the future. In his case it mattered that knowing the virtues and deficiencies of his past, and having established a desired, redemptive destination for his future, he would consequently live a better life now as evidenced to all by his new found generosity.

Picturing time as a stream provides us with a visual metaphor of fluid continuity. Past, present and future are but moments along a single stream of cause and effect, perpetually making turns, falls, pools and eddies of our experiences. There is value to be gained upstream and down, as well as in those mesmerizing features right before our eyes and ears.  

Knowledge Is Not Wisdom

I love history; just about anyone’s, but especially my own. Sounds a little egotistical, doesn’t it? But the phrase “my own” is not meant to be about me. It is in reference to my predecessors, whether I am talking about family, business, or any endeavor I have recently joined. I like to know about who went before me, what they did, how, when and where, and especially why. Answering the why question I consider to be the most difficult since we reach our conclusions shackled to the unrelenting bias of being human. And that admission about being fallible brings me to the next point I wish to make about a challenging book I have just finished reading entitled Thinking in Time: The Uses of History for Decision Makers by Richard Neustadt and Ernest May.

Near the start of their penultimate chapter they make a statement in which I truly delight. Anyone who loves history, whether they read it casually or study it intently, will recognize an affirmation for their time-traveling passion. Neustadt and May unashamedly declare, being historians themselves:

Vicarious experience acquired from the past, even the remote past, gives such guidance to the present that history becomes more than its own reward. Knowledge conveys wisdom; ignorance courts trouble. Persons of good sense are bound to study history in sheer self-interest, reaching out for reference points of likely future relevance and cramming in vicarious experience from each.

Cool. I am, by their account, a person of good sense. It says so in the last sentence of that quote. The nod to the value of my personal interest is sincerely appreciated, even though I am not one of the people they would include in their sub-title, a decision maker. Unless you consider debating whether or not to get out of bed in the morning a meaningful decision, I am currently not a maker of anything meaningful. I am retired, which makes me a history buff and not a true historian. I am not being paid for my research except in the currency of personal satisfaction in uncovering previous hidden or forgotten people, events and outcomes.

Here’s the rub, though. I respectfully disagree with their other assertion that knowledge conveys wisdom. I have simply had to live with, work with or associate with too many intelligent people, those human repositories of information, to see any direct correlation between knowledge and wisdom. We generally say of them that they lack common sense, although our unstated feelings may go much deeper and harbor more grudge than glory; more contempt than respect. In fact at this stage of my life I am more of an advocate for a quote by Angelo Codevilla, a professor of political science affiliated with the Hoover Institute at Stanford and with the Pardee School of Global Studies at Boston University, who said There is never enough information to make up for weak leadership.

Knowledge will always be tempered by the weaknesses of our humanity. It does not automatically convey anything, which ironically makes the case for reading Neustadt and May’s book. Their methodology is designed to help make the transition from knowing things to understanding them and subsequently to make sound decisions based on that information. As a person of good sense, I can honestly recommend their work to anyone in any decision making capacity. But also being human with my own limitless supply of fallibility, I would counsel you to apply their own method against their writings, to analyze and evaluate their conclusions. It would be the wise thing to do.

Thucydides Had It Right

In last week’s message I mentioned how I am working my way through the book written by Richard Neustadt and Ernest May entitled Thinking in Time: The Uses of History for Decision Makers. When I say that I am working my way through this book you can understand that to mean that it is not an easy read. Maybe that’s just an admission that I lack the intellectual power of these two Harvard dons, but in all honesty, I think they could have benefitted from a better editor.

Of course my assumption is that they intended to be understood by their readers. There are too many casual asides and oblique insertions into the middle of sentences, which could have enhanced the text by being omitted. Such an excision would likely have reduced the book by a third and in that estimation you can easily see how I view needless excess as obscuring needed content. Still, I like what they have to say about how to properly use history in current decision making. One simply must endure the miasma of sentence structure to reap the benefits of their and one’s own efforts.

I am near the end of the book and the chapter in which they summarize their strategy for using history begins with a quote from Thucydides, the Athenian general and historian. They do this to underscore their belief, which I do share, that history has value. The quote they include from the great man and thinker is but a fragment of his introduction to his account of the internal Greek conflict known as the Peloponnesian War. He wrote in part … those who want to understand clearly the events which happened in the past and which (human nature being what it is) will at some time or other and in much the same ways be repeated in the future.

Now, having said all I said about the two authors being needlessly verbose in their writing, I am forced to say that here is a case where they said too little. Less is definitely not more. In fact they quoted too little. By eliminating the first part of what Thucydides said, we miss the full value of his own point about the uses of history in decision making.

What preceded his affirmation that we will find ourselves facing the same types of situations as those who lived before us is that 1) his account is factual, lacking any fanciful myths and speculations, and 2) as such we may find the truth unpleasant. In other words human behavior can really suck, but the value in the telling is to do it honestly so that we will be better prepared to respond in a more constructive way and not repeat past mistakes.

These are troubling times. They are made all the harder by the plethora of commentary, which has supplanted the news being broadcast these days. We the people would be better served if the rule of Thucydides prevailed with his modern day counterparts in the media. Facts, however unpleasant to ponder, are prerequisites for solving one’s problems. We get, it seems, fragments of true information, which is buffered by personal and sometimes wild speculations on what those chosen fragments mean.

If the great man were present he would tell us that this type of reporting is not new. We are, in fact, simply witnessing history repeating itself in terms of how events are reported and shaded to serve the reporter’s interest and not our own.