“We are the flood and we are the ark.”

The last paragraph on page 194 read, “The most hopeless conditions can inspire the most hopeful actions. We have found ways to restore life on Earth in the event of a total collapse because we have found ways to cause a total collapse of life on Earth. We are the flood, and we are the ark.” 

I paused before moving on to the next chapter and looked up at my oldest daughter finishing breakfast. She offered an unknowing smile, which I half heartedly returned before dropping my gaze back to the page to hide my shame.

Ironically, this passage came from the book “We are the Weather:  Saving the Planet Begins at Breakfast.” by Jonathan Safran Foer. I had recently recommended this book to a friend, who after reading it, told me “I undersold it.”  So let me avoid making the same mistake twice.  

This book is essential reading. The author takes us through his conflicted and complicated feelings about life, our obligation to each other and to our planet. With great humility he chronicles his deeply personal struggles to square his acceptance of climate change science and his difficulty making any personal sacrifices to address it.

It is a dilemma I struggle with in my own life. Perhaps you do as well.

In short chapters that are not in any way preachy but rather enlightening, the book will change the way you see your place in the world and offer a not too dramatic way for you to make a difference.  As the title suggests, it begins with breakfast and trying to limit the meat and dairy products we eat to just dinner meals.

If, after reading this book, you’re still not convinced that you have a role to play and need a more direct punch to the gut. Then I suggest you pick up Greta Thunberg’s collection of speeches, titled No One is Too Small to Make A Difference.

Reading this book made me feel deservedly embarrassed, perhaps even ashamed at my indifference to this issue. While this sixteen year old girl from Sweden has earned our admiration, she makes it very clear that she doesn’t want it. She wants our actions.

To read this book is to force yourself to ask “WTF have I done to my children and their children and why aren’t I doing more to fix it?”

There is some interesting research as to why people understandably don’t engage in the issue of climate change more (much of it contained in the books I reference.)  But those reasons hold less and less proverbial water as sea levels literally are rising. As Foer’s phrase suggests, we are both the problem and the solution. “We are the flood.”  Now we had better hurry up and be that ark.  

“Best in” vs. “Best for”

As the decade comes to a close, there are no shortage of “Best of” lists — best stories, best films, best songs, best books, best teams, best players etc.

Perhaps you’ve also done your own personal best of the decade list. It would probably be filled with milestones, accomplishments, vacations, and events.

What we don’t see are many “best for” lists.  In other words, what were the best things done for someone else?

So as this decade comes to a close,  consider taking a few minutes to make a list answering these two questions:

— What were the best things you did for someone else this decade?

— What were the best things that someone did for you this decade?

Just a little time reflecting on these two questions will probably leave you feeling more grateful, appreciative and maybe even energized going into the new year.

Here’s to doing more “for” in 2020 and beyond.

Happy New Year.

What are your greatest hits this year?

With just one month left in the year, it is natural to look back at the previous eleven. For some it will feel like a blur, others a slog, others yet a mixed bag.
In the context of our life, it is likely that only a handful of memories from this year will remain lodged in our consciousness this time next year, joining the handful of others from each previous year of our lives. 
Let’s call these our greatest hits.  Just like most artists only have a few songs from each record release that stand the test of time, so too it is with our lives. 
One of the fathers of behavioral economics, Daniel Kahneman once said, “I am my remembering self, and the experiencing self, who does my living, is like a stranger to me.”
So take a moment and think of your greatest hits from this year. What experiences will you still think about five, ten, fifteen years from now? 

Here are some hints with an example of mine in parenthesis. They could be an awesome vacation (taking my family to Scotland), an inspiring cultural experience (Hamilton), planning a big event (my Mom’s surprise 75th birthday party), something you did with your kids (coaching soccer/basketball) or for others (helping three Yonkers students with their college essays), completing a major work project (launching “Whose on your dream team?”) or a simple, tender moment with your partner (recently receiving a supportive hug in a moment of crisis).
Now with  your greatest hits in your mind or better yet written down on a piece of paper, ask yourself these questions:
–           Who and what made each of those moments possible?
–           Have you recognized everyone who played a part on your greatest hits? 
–           How instrumental were you in other people’s greatest hits?
While year is almost over, we still have 8% left.  Plenty of time to record another hit, thank those that helped you record one already or play a part in the making of someone else’s.


Thanks to all of those who have already gone online to create your dream team.  I’m looking for any and all feedback. Even if you clicked the link but didn’t complete it, let me know why.  We’ve already streamlined the experience to make it easier.  Check the new and improved version here.

Would you like more or have you had enough?

In his brilliant new book, We are the Weather:  Saving the Planet Begins at Breakfast, Jonathan Safran Foer recites a common definition of the American Dream as “having a better life than one’s parents – better primarily in the sense of affluence.” 

He describes how his grandparents had a better home than his great grand parents and how his parents had a better home than his grandparents AND how he now has a better and more valuable home than any of them.  He concludes by saying that this defining of “having enough” as “having more” is the mentality that created both America and global warming.

Writing, “It is problematic on all scales, and self-destruction is built into the model because nothing can grow forever.”  Ouch.

Conversely, I recently went to an event featuring a discussion with Lin-Manuel Miranda. He was asked if the success of Hamilton was paralyzing in determining what to do next. After all, how could you possibly top its success? 

Instead of talking about pressure and writing blocks, Lin said how freeing this success was — “I’ve accepted that this will be the first line of my obituary and I’m cool with that.”  Because he was proud of that work in its own right, he can now be free to pursue projects without feeling like they need to live up to Hamilton in order to be successful.

Rather than self-destruction, his relationship to success was infinitely more sustainable and presumably satisfying. 

It is perfectly natural to want a little more, to continue to grow, challenge yourself again and again and again.

But to what end?

What kind of ancestor do you want to be?

This powerful question comes from Rom Mokak,  Australia’s first Indigenous Policy Evaluation Commissioner.  It is a question that the Yawuru people ask when a major decision is to be made for their community.

When I first heard this question, it made me think of what kind of steward I am for not just my children’s future but for their children and their children and so on. I specifically think of how my actions impact the health of the planet and society that they will inherit.

Then I read about a recent study that made me think about this question in a whole new light.

A group of economic historians Princeton, Stanford and the University of California, Davis studied economic mobility rates of immigrants compared to native-born Americans over the course of the last 140 years.

Their fascinating research found that children of immigrants rise from poverty at substantially higher rates than native-born Americans.  You can see here which country’s emigrants performed better than others.

In my own case, it appears that the average father who emigrated from Scotland around the time of my ancestors was likely to see his son rise out of poverty to sit firmly in the middle class.  Scots in general appeared to do better than other immigrant groups and significantly better than native-born Americans.

The theories, as to why, range from artificially depressed initial incomes of the fathers to higher mobility rates based largely on where they chose to settle. 

For example, people who settled near larger cities, specifically port cities, tended to do better (regardless of where they were from). Many Scots, including the McKinnon’s moved to Boston, the largest port city in the country at that time.

I wonder what John McKinnon thought when he became the first in my family to leave his homeland to pursue a better life.

How did he know where to go?  Did he know that his selection of place would make a generational difference?  Did he go to follow a friend, a specific opportunity, or a hunch?

The strains of daily life force us to face the questions right in front of us.

These two stories show that taking the time to look back can reveal different questions on how best to move forward.

“And losing him was like losing the rain.”

When he plays Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out in concert, Bruce Springsteen pauses in the middle of the song, where his friend, the late Clarence Clemons, sax solo used to be.  He does so to honor a man that he was not embarrassed to say he loved or kiss publicly.
When he played the song during Springsteen on Broadway, he went one step further, pausing longer to explain his deep affection for the person he called, “The Big Man.” When I heard him say, “He was elemental in my life…” it stopped me in my tracks.
The word elemental has many definitions – “fundamental, essential, primal”; “constituting an integral part”; “motivated by or symbolic of primitive and powerful natural forces or passions”; “of being the essential or basic part” and most literally, “pertaining to one of the four elements of earth, air, fire and water.”
So when Springsteen describes Clemons death by saying “He was elemental in my life, and losing him was like losing the rain” he is equating it to losing a basic part of his own being – the part that replenishes life and helps it grow.
The idea of being elemental in someone’s life is as beautiful a description of deep friendship as I have heard.
Throughout my life, I have been blessed to have different friendships at different times that I might describe as such.  But as we grow, move, and change, the power of even these elemental connections can fade.  The earth shifts beneath us, the air blows, the fire dims, and the water trickles where it once flowed more forcefully.
Springsteen’s tribute to Clemons reminds us not only of the beauty of such friendships but the need to more consistently attend to them.
So, much like he pauses in his song to remember his elemental friend, so too should we pause in our life to reach out and connect more deeply with ours.

What to do?

This week I watched a two-minute video and read a ten-page magazine article that hit me like a punch to the gut and left me staggering and wondering, “What to do?”
The video was of the sixteen-year-old environmentalist, Greta Thunberg, who had sailed from Sweden to address the United Nations.  Her provocative and passionate speech left me feeling shamed and helpless.  Watch for yourself.  How do her words make you feel?
“This is all wrong. I shouldn’t be up here. I should be back in school on the other side of the ocean. Yet you all come to us young people for hope. How dare you! You have stolen my dreams and my childhood with your empty words… Entire ecosystems are collapsing. We are in the beginning of a mass extinction, and all you can talk about is money and fairy tales of eternal economic growth. How dare you!  You are failing us. But the young people are starting to understand your betrayal. The eyes of all future generations are upon you. And if you choose to fail us, I say: We will never forgive you.”  
The article, When the Culture War Comes for the Kids, was from George Packer. He reflected on his challenges trying to educate children about the problems in the world without transferring our ideological baggage, political anxiety and generational responsibility on them.
At one point he writes:
“We owed our children a thousand apologies. The future looked awful, and somehow we expected them to fix it. Did they really have to face this while they were still in elementary school?”

In reflecting on the wisdom of a 16 year-old and the uncertainty of an almost sixty year-old, I couldn’t help notice the irony of their positions.
One was doing while the other was questioning. There seemed to be a time when it was the job of adults to be the doers and for children to ask questions born from their uncertainty.   
We led by example. We modeled good behavior based on values and a common culture.  We did this, hoping they would eventually grow up to be good citizens and stewards of the world – presumably like we were.

They would learn by watching and realizing, in the words of Seth Godin, “People like us, do things like this.” 
The operative word in that quote is “do.” 

I must admit in my own life I do a better job talking about the world’s issues with my children than by actively addressing them in my own daily actions for them to observe. 

Leading me to realize, that if I want our children to worry less, then I need to start doing more.

Wanted Dead and Alive

From the time I began writing this weekly note, at least five of its readers have died. Many more have lost a parent, family member, friend or co-worker during that same time.
Death, regretfully, is the ultimate fact of life.  Its certainty is inescapable.  Yet for many valid reasons we choose to put the question of our own mortality out of sight and out of mind.  
But when we hear someone has passed, we are confronted with reflecting on both their death and the eventuality our own.
The definition of dead and its antonym –alive — tell us very little about what it actually means.  In fact both are defined by the absence of the other.  Dead is “no longer alive” and alive “… not dead”
The words are abstract concepts that reflect both our finite physical state and our temporary emotional state of being (e.g. “I feel so alive” or “I feel dead inside”)
To consider the idea of being dead or alive can be isolating and fearful.  Or it can be communal and invigorating.
There are people in our lives who we have not seen or spoken to in years or even decades.  Some are deceased but many more are still with us.  Regardless, of their physical state, to think of them is to bring them to life once again. In doing so, we make that little part of ourselves that we shared with them come alive as well.
It is why the quotes of the poet Thomas Campbell “To live in hearts we leave behind is not to die” or author Terry Prachette, “Do you not know that a man is not dead while his name is still spoken,” ring so true – long after they themselves have died.
And why this quote from poet Antonio Porchia  – “One lives in the hope of becoming a memory.” should echo as a constant reminder of how to spend our time.

Changing Lives is a Contact Sport

The opening of David Brooks new book, The Second Mountain: The Quest for a Moral Life reads:
Every once in a while, I meet a person who radiates joy…They are kind, tranquil, delighted by small pleasures, and grateful for the large ones.  These people are not perfect.  They get exhausted and stressed.  They make errors in judgment. But they live for others, not themselves.  They’ve made unshakable commitments to family, a cause, a community or a faith.
Dalton Risner is such a person. He hails from a town of less than 1,000 people but starting in the fall will be watched by millions as he embarks on his NFL career.
Prior to being drafted this weekend, his moving story was profiled in this brief video. Definitely worth your time to check out if you’re looking for a pick me up today.
His platform as both a college football player and now as a professional one, could allow him to give back in any number of ways.  His choice involved finding individuals who were in need of a friend.  Who in Brooks’ words, could use someone who would take “interest in them and make them feel cherished and known.”
Football is a contact sport and so is changing lives.
We can write checks or volunteer behind the scenes episodically. These are important contributions to causes and communities.
But there is no substitute for getting involved directly.
In my own life, I must admit my own failings in this regard.  By disposition, I have always been more comfortable typing words on a familiar laptop than to shake the hand of a stranger. By practice, it is easier for me to address hundreds from a stage than trying to strike up a conversation with two people I don’t know at an event.
But when I think back to those times I have stepped out of my comfort zone and made a longer-term commitment to someone who otherwise would have been unknown to me, I feel the joy referenced above.
For a year in college, I bowled every Friday night with a group of four Special Olympians (and lost each and every time).
For several years, I read to a student in New York City once a week at lunchtime.
And just recently, I started helping three students preparing their college essays.
I’m not trying to virtue signal with these examples.  Just the opposite.  If I estimated the total amount of time I spent with this direct service, it would amount to less than the number of hours in one week.
This seems a pittance to me.
Right now, there is someone out there who I’ve never met, who you’ve never met – who is waiting for someone to take interest in him or her, to make them feel cherished and known. 
Joy awaits…. For us all.

Set for Life?

One night last week, while walking my dog Scout, my mind wandered on to the topic of risk.

I was lamenting my own sense of risk aversion. As long as I can remember, the fear of loss has always outweighed the joy of gain in my own mental risk calculation. 

Then looking down, lost in my own head, I found a lottery ticket resting in the street.  It’s name, Set for Life, struck my as ironic, as clearly the person who bought it, presumably still isn’t.

What would “set for life” mean for you? 

If you felt that way would you take more risks or less?  If you felt “set” would you hold ever more tightly to what you had?  Or would you feel free to give anything above and beyond “set” away to others?  Maybe you can’t even wrap your head around ever feeling that way.

As I continued my walk, I noticed that the windows of our buildings downtown were decorated for Memorial Day.  Among the flags and pictures of our town’s veterans past and present, one picture and caption stopped me in my tracks.  It was of three sets of parents whose commonality was each having five sons who fought in World War II. 

There was no postscript to tell us how many of them were injured or killed in action.

I wondered if any of those families had felt set for life before the war called.  I asked myself how those fifteen young men felt about their own mental risk calculation.

On the 20th anniversary of the D-Day invasion, reflecting on those who had risked and lost their lives, Dwight Eisenhower said, “These people gave us a chance, and they bought time for us, so that we can do better than we have before.”

And there it was:  The reminder, that it should be hard to feel “set for life” while others suffer and that the best risk should be taken in service of others.

In other words, take risks so others might someday be set for life.