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Saturday, September 13, 2014

Recess Rhythms


There is an elementary school about a half-mile from my house in Vieques, and when the school year is in session, I can hear the distant playground sounds of the children.

Ever notice that playground noise sounds the same, whether the kids are speaking Spanish, English or Swahili?

It brings to mind the sounds of my own childhood in Perth Amboy, New Jersey, in the Fifties. Especially the rhythms and rhymes of the girls playing jump rope during recess.

Back in those fifth-grade days, I attended Shull School, a big, classically designed school set on a hill. On either side of the building were playgrounds, situated above sidewalk level. There was a playground for boys and another for girls, just as there were a boys’ entry door and staircase as well as a similar arrangement for the girls.

Now, each generation of little kids believes they are the first to think up novel ways to deceive teachers. In my case, I ran with a pack of little perverts who thought we were the first to notice that all the girls wore dresses or skirts and if we casually stood on the sidewalk below the girls’ playground, we could nonchalantly look up as the girls jumped rope -- and treat ourselves to a peek of gam or, if the gods were kind that day, a blur of underwear.

Skipping rope, for some reason, has always been done almost exclusively by girls. Maybe because girls are better than boys at displaying athletic poise while articulating memorized or spontaneous rhyming patterns. It could be two girls swinging the rope, for example, sometimes swinging two ropes simultaneously (as in the 1946 photo above), or even two girls in the middle, skipping in unison.

Over on the boys’ playground, meanwhile, we goonies just ran around chaotically or engaged in fistfights. 

Where did the tradition of skipping rope to the cadences of rhythmic rhymes come from? I haven’t found any definitive answer. Girls make them up, it seems, and teach them to one another and to younger girls.

Girls and boys have their own parallel cultures and spread stories and rhymes and bits of nonsense to one another, passing them down to younger children and forgetting them as they grow up. There's a whole world of creativity going on underneath our noses, of which we adults are largely unaware, despite having participated in it ourselves at one time.

The rhythms we hear during recess do have effect, though, and affect our point of view.
One folklorist theorizes that some girls’ rhymes hint at fears of puberty and the consequences of sex – in masked language:

Cinderella, dressed in yellow,
Climbed the stairs
To kiss a fellow.
Kissed a snake
By mistake.
How many doctors
Will it take?

Some rhymes might be nothing more than a clever way of being naughty --without rousing the ire of teachers and parents:

Miss Annie had a steamboat
The steamboat had a bell
Miss Annie went to Heaven
The steamboat went to
Hell-o
Operator
Give me number nine
If you disconnect me
I'll kick your fat
Behind
The 'frigerator
There was a piece of glass
Mary sat upon it
And broke her big fat
As-k
Me no more questions
I'll tell you no more lies
Tell that to your mother
The day before she dies

One positive aspect of rhyming has been demonstrated conclusively: familiarity with rhymes is a strong foundation for reading literacy. Studies confirm that the better children are at detecting rhymes, the quicker and more successful they will be at learning to read, despite any differences in class background, general intelligence or memory ability.

Shouldn’t publishers of children’s books know this kind of thing? So why did Dr. Seuss – the father of rhymed stories for children -- suffer rejections by 27 publishers before his first book was printed?

In my next blog, “Once Upon a Time”

Saturday, September 6, 2014

Adam’s Curse


We are afflicted with what’s been called Adam’s curse -- awareness of our own mortality.

Unlike you and I, for example, dogs don’t reflect upon themselves or worry that their breath is bad. Their self-awareness is limited.

Living here in paradise, why am I entertaining these dark thoughts? Because I spent last weekend in Philadelphia, visiting my grandson, Connor, who’s studying biology sciences and psychology at Drexel University. Connor has developed a keen interest in neuroscience and psychology. He’d like to someday improve the way these two fields can be applied -- through research and clinical work -- to medicine and spirituality.

He gave me a book to read so that I might understand his ambition about unlocking the secrets of the mind: Consciousness, by Christof Koch, a colleague of DNA discoverer Francis Crick. Now, thanks to Connor, I can’t stop wondering about a subject few of us ever think about.

In reading the book, I learned that our inner world of mind, soul and spirit is more a mystery than is the external universe. It comes down to one simple question: “How can something physical (brain matter) give rise to something nonphysical (feelings)?”

Think about this. Georges Lemaitre, who died in 1966, is the acknowledged "father of the Big Bang." A Belgian Catholic priest, Fr. Lemaitre, while still a junior lecturer at the Catholic University of Louvain, proposed an expansionary theory of the universe at odds with the prevailing belief that the universe had always existed in a steady state. He asserted that the entire universe began with what he called a "cosmic egg" or "primeval atom" -- a theory that Sir Fred Hoyle derisively dismissed as "the Big Bang." Fr. Lemaitre also argued that not only was the universe expanding, but the speed of its expansion was accelerating. To Sir Fred’s chagrin, the priest's theories have been substantively confirmed.

Yet, scientists and scholars still don’t know what our inner, mental world is made of -- much less understand why it exists at all.

In other words, astronomers can make statements with surety about the Big Bang -- an event that took place 13.7 billion years ago. But we are baffled by the processes that make us aware of a toothache. Here’s Christof Koch:

“How the brain converts bioelectrical activity into subjective states, how photons reflected off water are magically transformed into the perception of an iridescent aquamarine mountain lake is a puzzle. The nature of the relationship between the nervous system and consciousness remains elusive and the subject of heated and interminable debates.”

The lack of any true scientific understanding of consciousness – especially when you consider the feats of science in other fields -- leaves lots of questions. In fact, many philosophers, scientists and medical experts accept the possibility that consciousness may rise from a source that is beyond the physical.

The concept of free will, for instance, has baffled scientists throughout the centuries. How is it that we humans are able to bring ideas and actions into existence from nothingness? This defies the most basic physical law -- cause and effect.

Judy Bachrach, in her recently published book, Glimpsing Heaven: The Stories and Science of Life After Death, writes:

“This is an area where a lot more scientific research has to be done: that the brain is possibly, and I'm emphasizing the 'possibly,' not the only area of consciousness. That even when the brain is shut down, on certain occasions consciousness endures. One of the doctors I interviewed, a cardiologist in Holland, believes that consciousness may go on forever. So the postulate among some scientists is that the brain is not the only locus of thought.”

In a world where science has pretty much tossed out non-physical concepts from serious inquiry, paradoxes like this remain – the human capacity to “create through intention.”

Where do we go from here? Perhaps:
  • Continuing deep curiosity about the role of spirituality
  • A profound responsibility to hone for the better the “seemingly divine” tool of conscious awareness of ourselves and of our world
  • Final acceptance that each person wields wondrous power to manipulate the world in any way we please
Charles Duell was the commissioner of the U. S. Patent Office in 1899. He is most famous because of a quote attributed to him: "Everything that can be invented has been invented."
In hindsight, we realize that if Mr. Duell did in fact utter those words, he was an ignoramus.

The lesson for me is that, just when I’ve reached the advanced age when I start to actually buy into the idea that I have achieved some level of “wisdom,” along comes a grandchild – perhaps one I once taught to tie a shoelace – to teach me how little I really know … and how much more there is to learn.


In my next blog, “Recess Rhythms”

Saturday, August 30, 2014

Until You Die

"The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man's heart."
Albert Camus


On Labor Day, September 1, Executive Media will mark nineteen years of helping senior executives increase the impact of their communication with their constituencies.

For almost two decades, blue-chip organizations – like Avaya, Cisco, Fujitsu, General Motors, Hewlett-Packard, Hitachi, Humana, IBM, Motorola, Siemens, Symantec, US Airways -- have relied on us for speeches, video programs and large-scale multimedia events for audiences as large as 10,000.

In addition, for the past four years, I’ve indulged in the popular fantasy of operating a bed-and-breakfast and have two -- on Cape Cod and Vieques, Puerto Rico.

In the meantime I’ve been busy writing for myself for a change, and right now I have three books being vetted by professional editors:
  • Down the Edges, a novel that reveals what happens when evil comes alive in a sleepy Cape Cod town
  • Silently in the Dark, a novella that traces a homeless boy’s grim engagement with innocence and iniquity
  • A Light from Within, essays centered on the odd and the ordinary
Works in progress are The Fat Guy in the Fat Boat, Clean Jokes, and a novel with the working title of Ex-.

It was a book called Do What You Love and the Money Will Follow that spurred me to leave a secure job in corporate management and start my own company in 1995. I soon discovered that work is not about the money, but the love. This was substantiated by a 2010 Princeton University study of 450,000 Americans, which found that when annual income is sufficient to meet basic needs, increased income doesn’t make people any happier.

In my two paradise spots of Vieques and Cape Cod – where everybody seems to be either vacationing or retired –-- all are taking their rest.

But I know a good number of people who are productive well into what are considered retirement years. Architect John Hix, for example, is designing and building houses into his mid-seventies. Trappist monk Gabriel Berton is providing spiritual counsel as he approaches 80 years of age. And Impressionist painter Ilona Royce Smithkin is painting, teaching, modeling and performing cabaret into her mid-nineties.

Work is more than a way to make a living. It is our participation in the ongoing creation of the universe. We are heirs to the work of past generations and at the same time we share in building the future for those who will come after.

Catholic social thought suggests that work is a good thing – for the individual and for humanity -- because through work we not only transform nature and adapt it to our needs, but we also achieve fulfillment as humans, in a sense becoming "more a human being.”

This view is at odds with the way I observed corporate culture evolve its perception of employees during my own career -- from “personnel” to “human resources” to “human capital.“ In other words, employees were viewed as owned entities, like buildings and desks and telephones.

The result, many times, is an employee population that identifies with Sisyphus, the mythical Greek who so infuriated the gods that they condemned him to an eternity of endlessly pushing a rock to the top of a mountain, only to have it roll back down.

Nobel laureate Albert Camus, however, found joy in this. He wrote: "The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man's heart." 

As philosopher Rick Garlikov explained it, the task is not to keep the rock at the pinnacle, but merely to get it there. So every time Sisyphus repeated the task he achieved success. 
Making the attempt, in other words, is never futile, because it determines and simultaneously rewards our character. 

It depends on who owns you and who owns your work, I guess. If you make what you do your own, why wouldn’t you want to work until you die?

In my next blog, “Adam's Curse”