Season of Nostalgia

My mom on the right with her sister, Aunt Connie - some time in the early 1960s. 

My mom on the right with her sister, Aunt Connie - some time in the early 1960s. 

The calls begin at the start of the week from old friends, family, and the kids.

The question, “What are you doing?” comes out as “Whatcha doin’?”

There is truly little interest in the actual tasks underway or the activities in process as the nation prepares for Thanksgiving. More it’s about connecting at this time of year.

“Whatcha doin’” means “I miss you”. 

It means, “I wish we were kids again when life was simple.

It means, “Are you making that mashed potato recipe Mom used to make?”

It means, “I wish Mom were still around to talk to as she made those mashed potatoes when we were kids.”

It’s the start of our season of nostalgia that seems particularly potent this year. The entire country seems to be nostalgic for the perception of “simple” that came with being young.

Truthfully there was nothing simple about the times of our youth for those of us who are Boomers. The death of Charles Manson this past week reminds us that there were domestic anarchists or terrorists active in this country when we were teenagers.  More than 48 years ago, we also experienced crazy men calling for race wars and murdering people in their homes.

One of the biggest differences between no and then was the lack of persistent, insistent channels of information in the 1960s. Yes, we had a television when I was 13. It was a black and white TV that required a hand on the knob to actually change to one of the four channels. There was radio, sure, but mostly music or sports and less hate.

We simply didn’t have persistent, insistent voices in every room of the house, in our hands, in our cars with hundreds of variations telling us the same story over and over, with opinions coloring the perspectives and providing extreme interpretations.

So this week, we turn on Hallmark movies - the fireplace log with a soundtrack was big today. And we call old friends, family in other places, and ask at Thanksgiving, “Whatcha doin’?”

And we yearn for a time that we believe was simple – despite all evidence to the contrary.

The Girls

Sunrise behind the Duomo in Florence - 

Sunrise behind the Duomo in Florence - 

Venice was its magical self last week – foggy lagoon with palazzos and cathedrals rising from the mist to create a beautiful, if somewhat creepy, vista of Renaissance barons and gondoliers plying commerce among the canals and alleys of the Queen of the Adriatic.

I was there to meet up with The Girls of Wake Forest’s class of 1978. We went to revisit some of the magical moments of our semester abroad in Casa Artom on the Grand Canal.

It was only the first stop on an adventure that included planes and trains to the mosaic rich Ravenna, Medici influenced Florence, and walled city of Lucca – each a reminder of the rise and fall of empires, the impact of political and religious trickery, and the resilience of great art to inspire beyond the reach of time.

While the art of Italy fed my soul – and the pasta did a number on my waist - it was the time with The Girls that was most valuable.

Of course, we’re not actually Girls any more in the true sense of the word. Not sure it’s possible to be Girls when you’ve hit your 60s. But these women will always be The Girls in my mind’s eye. 

It’s a fun trick the mind can play – holding the visual memory of our younger selves so that 23-year olds peer at me from the faces of my long-time college friends. I can still see the young women excitedly preparing for first dates with fraternity boys, hair being straightened or curled depending on preference.

That same phenomenon happens with childhood friends from Mansfield, Ohio – within minutes of meeting up, the children of my youth peer at me from eyes that have lived decades beyond the expiration of childhood.

The Girls have all been married, raised children, and experienced moments of great joy and profound sadness. All of that is reflected in the corners of our eyes, the curve of our smile lines, and in the “11s” of our foreheads.

That last is a new thing for me – I had never realized what a problem 11s could be on one’s forehead. Those are the two parallel lines that appear when one frowns deeply. They were quite the topic of conversation over my week in Italy – how to moisturize, hydrate, or tape them away so that they disappeared from view.

I guess I’ve never really noticed the 11s, the creases, or wrinkles on the lovely faces of The Girls. They remain 23 for me within the magic of my mind’s memory. Always young, always eager for a new adventure – and that is the power of staying connected to dear – and old – friends. 

And Again...

Joy turned to horror...

Joy turned to horror...

Here we are at the beginning of a new week that’s at the beginning of a new month that’s at the start of a new year on the Jewish and Muslim calendars…and we’re experiencing the horror of imagination and empathy for those whose enjoyment of a country music festival in Las Vegas was shattered by gunfire.

Again the shared national disgust at seeing what one man can be capable of inflicting on so many.

Again a new record that no one wanted to see broken.

Again we feel the physical body blow of grief for people we may not know but can easily imagine.

My daughter would have been there if corporate shenanigans at her company hadn’t kept her in LA. So for a brief moment, I will celebrate the shenanigans of corporations whose financially driven decisions cause millennials enough stress to remain close to home.

Again we ask the persistent questions that we can’t seem to resolve.

Why did this happen?

How could someone characterized as mild-mannered suddenly flip a switch and fire a weapon for nearly two hours from a Vegas hotel room?

What triggered this break with reality?

How could nobody notice someone bringing ten large weapons into a Vegas hotel room?

What is it about disaffected white men in this country that’s leading to so much large-scale violence?

Some of you will flinch at that last question – but look at the stats, or facts. Suicide is one measure of disaffection from life – and for a culture that was built on a stated belief that life is valuable; a close look at the suicide data is shocking.

Rates are at their highest in 30 years, and most – 7 out of 10 suicides in 2015 alone – are committed by white men.

Why? No one agrees – the experts have theories, but no one knows for certain.

After spending much of the past week reflecting on the year past, and praying for the start of a healthy New Year, today is a blow and signals that while prayers are a good place to start, we need action, too.

Time

How we kept time before iPhones...

How we kept time before iPhones...

Here it is the end of September, and I haven’t posted since March. How did that happen?

Dad always said that time passes faster the older we get and he was right. It makes sense in a relative sort of way, if you think about it.

When we were kids, each season that passed was a much larger percentage of our lives than now. Just think – each year that blurs by now is merely 1/61st of my life versus the 1/6th or 1/8th or 1/10th when I was a kid.

I’m also in that part of my life where busy-ness is a habit. If I’m not “doing” something – well then, I must be sick. And I rarely get sick.

So I find projects that need to be done around the house, and with a 113-year-old house, there’s always something. Or I create projects by inviting people to a dinner party, or scheduling a cook out, or planning a trip, or taking up embroidery (fact!), or.. the list goes on.

Time is precious, however – and how we spend it matters.

I have things I want to get done that get lost in busyness – and suddenly, I realize – whoa! Time is passing.

There are stories I want to share with you – we learned so much on our epic road trip at the beginning of the year about what separates us as Americans, and what holds us together.

I have a remarkable story I really want to share about finding relatives I never knew existed.

Each of these stories requires the discipline of writing, which means less busy-ness based on the habit of it all, and more focus.

And focus is the other thing that passes as quickly as time.

Wonder if I can develop new habits over time?

This Land is Our Land

...on the roads of America...

...on the roads of America...

We left the bubble of Minneapolis this winter – more like the ice castle of Minneapolis this year – on an epic road trip to see the landscape of those whose experience of this country is so different than ours.

Context is important here – we live in a friendly neighborhood located between two of the loveliest city lakes in this City of Lakes. Our neighbors are all solvent and our home values go up year over year in this growing and prosperous city. Our kids rode their bikes to community parks and graduated from a top public high school. Life is good here.

Believing that our bubble of bueno was shared by most in this great nation was a mistake. And it was a mistake we needed to fix because we each believe strongly in the importance of politics as a way to achieve meaningful change for this country we love. Politics as the art of solving problems, of negotiating solutions, of achieving compromise in how we approach big issues in this country.

So we hit the road, heading south because – well, it was winter and Minnesota is on the North Coast of this country meaning most of the rest is south of us.  

Big headline learnings?

America is a gorgeous country with the landscapes that take your breath away well balanced by those that inspire long exhales. We are fortunate that a hundred years ago, Teddy Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson realized we should preserve the fragile reminders of the earthquakes, volcanoes, and overall movement that created rolling hills, majestic mountains, buttes, cliffs, canyons, rivers, and swamps millennia ago. Our national parks are truly a treasured legacy of good planning that we need to value.

Americans who work in gas stations, hotels, and restaurants are wonderfully friendly and helpful souls. In six weeks of travel, we didn’t encounter a single human who was grumpy or mean. This isn’t a surprise. Most humans are good people – it’s the extremists of all stripes that give us a bad name, and those extremists don’t seem to work in customer facing jobs.

More Americans live in manufactured housing of all kinds than we had imagined. This includes mobile homes, doublewides, and RVs in community after community. We were surprised by the winter communities that spring up in the desert – more than 250,000 RVs annually show up in Quartzsite, AZ to enjoy the swap meet community and flea markets there. There is something uniquely American about this – the freedom that comes from choosing a place to live that can be picked up and moved when circumstances or weather says it’s time to go.

America’s Interstate Highway system is a marvel – and could use a reboot. The highway engineers who completed a coast-to-coast solution to our itchy desire to take road trips were remarkably creative and disciplined. Thanks to Dwight Eisenhower for championing the nationwide network – and it’s time to update the roadways for the 21st Century.

America has always been a nation of change fueled by technology. We drove by and through a number of ghost towns and shadow cities where the reason for being in that place had been eclipsed by progress. Former whistle stops for steam engine trains, cities on the edge of old copper, gold, and silver mines, and ancient native villages tell the stories of lives lived with hope and promise before some form of progress made viable livelihoods impossible.

Looking at the outline of homes left behind for millennia and centuries makes it clear that disruption of families and communities has marked our American landscape since. I just wonder if the residents of whistle stop towns in the 1880s were as fearful for tomorrow as we are today. The families who are at home in today’s industrial cities have the sense that the full employment of decades past will never return as it was. But the magnetic hold of home keeps them in place – and in a frightful place.

I’m planning to focus some time on sharing more with you about all we learned from our Six Weeks on the Road – but for now, these are the headlines of the experience. 

Now What...

...time to focus.

...time to focus.

Way back in the 1970s, I went to a liberal arts college in North Carolina and graduated with a degree in Politics. Not political analysis or political behaviors – that would have been instantly useful.

No, my area of study and fascination was more theoretical. It was all about learning how to “read” a culture and understand the conditions necessary for a “people” to choose to live within an autocracy, oligarchy, monarchy, anarchy, democracy, or socialist society. It was a somewhat esoteric pursuit, but at least I got my Water Safety Instructor’s certification so I could be a lifeguard after college.

Forty years later, after a career spent in public affairs, or as I like to call it “strategic storytelling”, I’ve become a student of human behaviors and the ways to engage various “publics” in understanding, valuing, or caring about issues important to my employers or clients. And I’m worried.

This grand 240-year-old experiment in democracy that we call America needs our focused attention now as it appears to be at risk based on some public behaviors and basic disregard for the tenets of our form of government. 

What do I mean? Historically, vibrant democracies relied on the engagement of an informed populace in making selections and choices at all levels of government. How will that be possible in a “post truth” era?

Yes, the Oxford dictionaries selected “post truth” as the international word of the year for 2016, saying, “Objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.”

As I’ve noted before, those of us involved in public affairs have always known that – but there was a certain amount of honor in deploying emotional appeals that were grounded in actual fact. Those days are over.

Now it appears bald-faced lies based on pure fiction can be turned into emotionally compelling online memes that are spread with abandon – and to great effect. That is a great risk for a democracy and for a country that appears to be quite reactive in its responses to inflammatory lies.

What to do?

1 - We need to aggressively protect truth – and be respectful in how we do that.

In this age of online fact checking resources, it’s relatively easy to check sources, check “about” pages to see who’s paying for those sources, and then use our well-founded American skepticism when “facts” align with the “interests” of those sources. Then call it out wherever you see it – with care. (Confession here – I saw a note on a friend’s FB page that I thought was an attack, and I called it out rather harshly. I was wrong, it was pure parody, and I apologized.)

2 – We need to support organizations that support our core values.

If you’re concerned about the future, support the organizations that specialize in protecting those assets. The environment – clean air, water, climate change? The Environmental Defense Fund is a highly rated choice. Ongoing access to reproductive health care for our sons and daughters? Planned Parenthood remains an important investment. Are you worried about protecting our constitution and the rights enumerated by our founders? (Now is a good time to check out the constitution by the way – easy to find online) The American Civil Liberties Union is a solid protector – I may not agree with all of their issues, but the solid protection of the constitution is admirable.

Concerned about Americans who may be vulnerable to hate crimes? As a Jew married to an immigrant, this one hits close to home for me… well, I’m donating to the Southern Poverty Law Center this year – they are strongly vigilant on this front.

There are others organizations, and I suggest you check any charitable contributions with Charity Navigator, an aggressively accountable website that reviews 501 c 3 non-profits and how they spend their (your) money.

3 – We need to get out of our “cluster bubbles”.

Humans tend to cluster with people who are alike. I realized over the past month that we tend to spend our time with people who are pale creative types with multiple degrees and financial security. While we really love our friends – and family – it’s time to break out and listen to those whose “pursuit of happiness” is distinctly different than our own.

We live in Minneapolis and have easy access to Somalis and their restaurants. So one recent Sunday night, we grabbed some friends for a meal. Big deal, you say? We were the only pale people there – and we were greeted with big smiles of welcome, great food, and yes – we’re going back. Choosing to spend time in a place where we are the “other” is a good exercise in understanding the common humanity in all of us.

It’s also an important lesson that anytime we classify groups of people as having a specific characteristic – “all Somalis are…”, “all Midwesterners are…”, “all Southerners are…” - we’re missing a core principle of our world’s great religions - that each of us is unique in our ability to contribute.

4 – We need to practice aggressive, assertive kindness. 

While our traditional – and non-traditional - media channels are being distracted by tweets, we can manage the interactions we have that are right in front of us.

Many of you know the story of the old man walking the beach after a huge storm has washed hundreds of starfish ashore. A young girl watches as he throws one starfish after another back into the surf. After some time, she approaches the old man and asks, “Why are you doing that? You’ll never be able to save them all.”

“Maybe not,” he said. “But I made a difference for this one, and now this one, and…” well – you get the idea.

Few of us can wash away the irrational craziness we’re experiencing right now, but we can make a difference by protecting the pursuit of truth, contributing to organizations that protect our core values, befriending different cultures and people, and practicing kindness – although I’m not a Buddhist, I have great respect for the Dalai Lama, who says, “Be kind whenever possible. It is always possible.”  

Recalling Old Lessons

Reflecting the pain of shattered assumptions...

Reflecting the pain of shattered assumptions...

Yes – Tuesday’s election results were a surprise for most of us. I, too, bought in to the “conventional wisdom” that Hillary’s machine would allow her to break the ultimate glass ceiling and become President Hillary.

However, I stopped watching cable TV news in the month running up to the election because I couldn’t stand the echo chamber nature of us talking to ourselves about our shared understandings. And that should have been my clue that the election was not what it appeared it would be.

Today I’m bootstrapping to tap into my normally excessive optimism about the future to figure out where to focus my energy and I’m starting with some old lessons that still prove true.

First, a disclaimer and a definer:  I am a privileged white woman who has benefited greatly from the hard work of those who came before me. My grandparents were educated farmers with college degrees earned in the late 1800s – gentlemen farmers, was the preferred term. They enjoyed classical music, were active in their communities and produced children who aspired to the professions.

My father and mother provided my brother and me with music lessons, organized sports team memberships, and all the attention and support children of the 1960s and 1970s could want. We both had access to fully funded higher educations, and I’ve been fortunate with my career opportunities – again, because women before me carved a path.

That career has been focused on the science and art of storytelling to influence behaviors, more commonly referred to as public relations, marketing, corporate communications, or public affairs. We all – companies and individuals – have a story to tell about why we exist, why we do what we do, and how that can make a difference for those who interact or purchase from us.

From consumer products to health care, public companies to non-profits, I’ve learned there are some core truths to this work that I ignored during this election.

1 – We buy – and vote – based on how we feel, not what we know.

This has been true as long as America has been the messiest of all forms of government, a democracy. We have to feel deeply to show up at a polling place and convince five to ten of our friends to do the same, which is a winning formula.

For a number of reasons – including the echo chambers of pundits and experts that convinced us Hillary would win – voters who resonated with Trump’s view of America felt far more motivated to show up with friends than did the Democrats.

It’s the same with consumer products. Is there truly a factually different impact from one hand cream over another, or do we buy what our mothers and friends use because it feels familiar and comfortable? I buy glasses now from Warby Parker because it makes me feel good to know that my purchase provides free glasses to someone who needs them, even though they’re not necessarily any better than those I can purchase from my eye doctor’s office. And yes – I recognize that my choice of Warby Parkers can be perceived as privileged and reflecting an elitism that would frustrate many who voted for Trump.

“What’s wrong, lady? Costco not good enough for ya?” Of course it is – but given a consumer choice, I will choose to make a purchase that I feel can make a difference, even if buying Warbys is also the trendy choice.

2 – It’s never about facts. It’s about story.

Now that neuroscience is unlocking the workings of our brains, we have the proof that humans respond better to stories that elicit feelings than facts that explain.

It’s ancient hardwiring that enabled us to survive despite large carnivorous animals and warring tribes who wanted our lands. For thousands of years, we have created myth and legend to explain the seasons and natural phenomenon. Even our religious books, including the Bible, are filled with imperfect humans wrestling with God or gods to overcome human disasters.

This always makes my university faculty friends crazy. They live in a world of scientific fact and data which will never be as persuasive as a well-framed story about a life improved because of their science. It’s powerful and important to understand that stories involving other humans are far more compelling and influential than stacks of data or facts.

It explains how the facts of Trump’s multiple business failures and shady or fraudulent business transactions had significantly less influence than the image of his business success projected by the big Trump jet, the big Trump buildings, and the gilded lifestyle he appears to lead. The image of the poor little rich boy who built an empire populated by attractive women and well-dressed progeny told a story that no facts could shake for voters who wanted to vote for an image of their own potential success. 

3 – We cannot hear or understand what we do not believe, or we only hear what we believe.

My friends and professional colleagues live and work in a world where calling people names, demonstrating overt racism, sexism, or denigration of anyone with a different past or belief is simply not done. Anyone who showed hatred would be ostracized if not fired or demoted.  So it was impossible for us to believe that anyone could hear Trump’s hate speech(es) and still support his campaign. We just couldn’t understand how any rational human could vote for hate.

And we weren’t paying attention to the right cues. His supporters were keying in on his “Make America Great Again” mantra, interpreted as they each believed he meant those words.

Yes - there are a few of his supporters – represented by David Duke and the KKK- Nazis – who want it to mean “Make America White Again”, and they need to be carefully monitored and rejected now.

But they are not the majority. Most of his rural, exurban, small town American supporters believed he was talking about making America understandable again and slowing down the pace of disorienting change.

My hometown is one such place that has lost its manufacturing base and a large swath of its middle class, while watching home prices decline and schools struggle. The professional class that’s left – the doctors and lawyers – are frustrated by the incomprehensible nature of health care reform and by regulations that make running a business more difficult. My peers remember robust civic institutions that brought cultural events to town, and we remember when the drug problem was a few longhaired guys who smoked pot behind the high school – not a rampant heroin and opioid epidemic striking down the “good kids”.

They’re scared of what’s hard to understand or manage or control, and a man who projects confidence that he can get it done can be comforting. When you believe your world is at risk, that everything you have believed in is changing for the worse, and you are living with an underlying fear of a group of radicals in foreign lands who are out to eradicate our western way of life, then you interpret “Make American Great Again” as a call to return to a time when things made sense to you. When buying a home was an investment in the future, not a financial burden. A time when schools were places to learn and grow, not just manage a range of behavioral issues resulting from neglect or abuse at home. A time when the challenge of technology was learning to use a remote, not losing a manufacturing job to a more productive robot.

In that environment, voters simply didn’t care that their candidate spouted language and engaged in behaviors that were beyond the boundaries of societally acceptable. When the world as you know and understand it is falling apart, screw society and vote as if your life depends on it.

Those are the lessons of my profession that I ignored this year. Now it’s time to help my clients and friends learn to navigate through the next few years. 

Attractive & Promises

This is attractive - Adafina recipe at end...

This is attractive - Adafina recipe at end...

One of the echo chamber sidebars of this entire circus of an election involves the “discussion” of what it means to be an attractive person.

If you’re a woman, this is an old topic filled with ambivalence and angst. We’ve allowed large multi-billion dollar industries to convince us that make up, hair products, fashion, and shape are things to be acquired and desired. We exfoliate, hydrate, moisturize, blow dry, and revitalize to create sleek, satin-soft, radiance for our skin and hair.

The danger is that too much of that hydrated revitalization can lead to a plasticized version of the current trend in “beauty”. We’re told that at a certain age, it’s important to go lighter with our hair colors. We’re also told that crêpey skin and turkey neck are horrors that need to be covered with the latest turtleneck fashions.

OK – I loved the late, great Nora Ephron’s book, “I Feel Bad About My Neck: And Other Thoughts on Being a Woman” – and if you haven’t read it, this is a good time to grab a copy. The brilliantly expressed anxiety involved in the maintenance work of sustaining appearances is both hilarious and deeply sad.

Ah, what we go through to remain acceptably visible.

And then – if we’re lucky - we turn 60. At that age, there’s really no need to expend any resources on the products of beauty. We’re now physically invisible. And that’s a wonderful thing.

Now is the time when we can get back to what truly makes people – makes humans – attractive. It’s not the hair products. Some of the sexiest men alive are bald. And some of my most beautiful friends have spent their lives outdoors in the sun and wind – and their skin has become a testament to their experiences.

Attractive is really about being aggressively, assertively kind and generous.

Kind with the emotions that visibly beam through sparkling eyes.

Happy with the joys of discovering life’s wonders through curiosity.

Grateful with the recognition of the abundant gifts of friends and family.

I’ve found that humans are only ugly when they’re spewing anger and hate – and there’s been plenty of ugly recently.

No matter who wins – we have politicians already promising to ensure there will be no policy discussions, or true debate about how best to solve issues for this nation. Instead there will be more years of promoting hate rather than ideas, of denigrating different rather than celebrating diversity.

And that will make for a very unattractive nation.

 

And now a promise fulfilled – the recipe for Moroccan Adafina

This recipe comes from Saffron Shores, by Joyce Goldstein – with a few variations.

In orthodox Jewish homes, there is no cooking on the Sabbath, but it is also encouraged to have a hot meal on Saturday for mid-day. So the tradition was to prepare a slow-cooking meal that could remain in the oven overnight and be gloriously ready by noon of the next day. Or one can raise the temperature – cook for fewer hours, and have a great evening party.

·      2 Tablespoons Olive Oil

·      2 large onions, chopped

·      6 cloves garlic, minced

·      3-4 pounds stewing beef or brisket, cubed

·      6 potatoes, peeled and halved if large

·      1 ½ cups dried chickpeas, soaked overnight and drained

·      12 dried apricots, cut in pieces

·      1 teaspoon ginger

·      1 teaspoon ground allspice

·      salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

·      broth to cover

·      8 eggs, in their shells that have been washed

Preheat the oven to 250 degrees F. In a large, heavy dutch oven, heat the oil over medium heat and cook the onions until golden, 15-20 minutes. Add all the remaining ingredients, tucking the eggs under the broth. Bring to a boil and reduce heat to a simmer. Cover and bake for 8 hours, or until the meat and chickpeas are tender.

Or you can bake at 300 degrees F for 4-5 hours. To serve, peel the eggs – which will be brown and almost creamy to eat – and return them to the stew.

Note: I’ve also made this recipe by using 3-4 pounds of chicken thighs in place of the beef.

Enjoy! And stay warm.