Wednesday, January 07, 2015

Acute awareness

I thought I would blog more upon my repatriation to the U.S.A. However, I realized today that the persistent view that I didn’t have anything to say was more about my awareness. Looking back on blog posts from 2005 to 2015 (wow, 10 years of blogging!), it is obvious that I blogged more during periods of acute awareness which usually came during periods of transition to and from the U.S.A. to Europe, back again, and then the longer period of enculturation in Qatar. However, was the issue the stimulus (i.e. change) or was it awareness? I now think that it was awareness, something that has been stirred for me through some interesting experiences over the last week.

Over the last 2 months of being back in the U.S.A. I’ve noticed a couple of cultural differences that are not profound but nevertheless important. Americans are much more respectful and comfortable with lines (no crowding, cutting, or impatience), they tend not to engage informally with strangers, and their interactions are often quite transactional (get the task accomplished rather than establish a relationship). While I appreciate the respect for lines (especially when it comes to auto driving safety), I’ve been uncomfortable with the lack of engagement. My first attempt to cross the line was introducing myself to staff at the fitness center I joined this last week. The very first introduction resulted in a series of discussions with a fascinating guy, Chris, who is transferring from a local community college to the University of Southern California later this week. When he found that I had worked in higher education, he started pumping me with questions that took me back to the wonderful conversations I used to have in the fitness room in Doha. He asked about choice of major, where he should live, and how to make the most of his education. This is a young man who I assume is of relatively modest means but who now sees himself at a critical juncture of opportunity.

The encounter with Chris contrasted with an a cappella group performance this last Sunday in Wilmette. The group was from Yale and they were good enough musically but it was who they were and the way they presented themselves that caught my attention. First of all, all the 12 singers were White, something that just is not part of my worldview these days. Then when they each introduced themselves by indicating their hometowns, majors and aspirations, they proceeded to minimize the importance of their majors and often referenced very trivial aspirations compared to the weight of the institution they attend. I’m confident that the light introductions were intended to keep things humorous and entertaining but the impact for me was very different. What I saw was young White Americans taking their great privileged for granted and perhaps not even taking themselves as seriously as they might.

How do these fragments fit together? First of all, it feels good to return to a more reflective place where I am actively aware of what’s going on around me. Being acutely aware in a different cultural context is in many ways more natural and spontaneous but I can choose to be more aware in any environment where I am willing to cultivate perspective. Secondly, I am eager to reinforce the impression that I know many U.S.A. educators have – that American students are often complacent about their privilege and therefore miss great opportunity. This complacency of privilege occurs across cultural and national borders as well. I do not assert this concern as a criticism of contemporary students but as a challenge that educators need to address. The bombardment of information in today’s world is overwhelming. Whether it’s the hyperbole of news media turning everything into an event (i.e. the need to now name every storm front that moves across the U.S.A.) or the profusion of personalized messages and perspectives coming into our cell/mobile devices, how to sort through what is important and matters is a huge task and requires considerable discipline. While I know there is a place for light conversation and relaxation, it seems to me that acute awareness rather than complacency is what we should seek. This acute awareness would then hopefully (Insh’Allah) result in discerning and critical analysis, seeing ourselves and others more realistically and compassionately, and engaging in leadership and membership that has the potential to shape a justice and caring world.

Sunday, December 28, 2014

The "C" between "B" and "D"

I’ve spent the weeks since returning to the U.S. acclimating and preparing for the Christmas holiday with family. With our holiday drawing to a close, Diane and I attended the Trinity United Methodist Church in Wilmette for what would be the last of the Advent and Christmas observances earlier today. The message was provided by an intern from China who contrasted Asian cultural perspectives based on Budism with those of the West. The point he made was that Budism views life as a constant unfolding circle of experiences while Western culture, significantly shaped by Christianity, is more linear – birth, life, death and the promise of a life after death that varies according to the theological view of the Christian. He advised that Christian faith calls believers to reflect carefully on the “C” between “B” and “D,” “C” being the choices one makes between “B” (birth) and “D” (death).

It struck me that the message of paying careful attention to our choices is central to the idea of advent - a time of preparation. Islam has an equivalent concept in the month of Ramadan that culminates in the Hajj pilgrimage to Medina and Mecca for those who can make the trip. A wonderful PBS documentary captured the journey of a group of Muslim pilgrims from Boston, reflecting the struggles of spiritual reflection that are such an important part of the Hajj journey. Advent and Hajj provide the opportunity for a very profound experience if the time is used to prepare, to reflect, to grow in patience and self-understanding, and to ultimately connect with God.

The close of the holiday season and the return to life’s routine is in some ways a sad time. However, the most important loss is perhaps ceasing the intentional preparation for what we intend to do. Paying attention to what I intend to do takes on greater importance tomorrow more than perhaps any time thus far in my life. Because all my time has been focused on Advent and the preparation for Christmas over the last six weeks, I hadn’t really thought about how important the choices I will make in the coming days will be. For the first time since starting my career in 1973, I have broader choices to make about how to use my time. Sure, we have choices in our work and careers but in some ways the choices we make outside of our work are the most important decisions we face.

Qatar taught me many things about the worth and dignity of all people, about sacrifice, and about hope in the face of challenging odds. There were so many people I encountered who were in Qatar because they had no other choice in order to feed their families. More often than not, these friends made a choice for hope and constantly had a positive outlook that was humbling. I cherish these memories and look forward to making choices to contribute to those around me here in Chicago and for those who are scattered across so many other nations who are striving for opportunity.

I will strive to live by the lesson of Advent this year, of my return to the U.S., and of the message we heard at church today – intentional preparation for spiritual encounter, for career, and for service to others requires being aware of the constant choices we have to make.

Monday, November 24, 2014

Repatriation - one week later

It seems strange to know that I've been back in the U.S. for a full week now. Strange because it feels as if I've been here forever but also strange because the experience of living in Qatar is always on my mind. The unnerving part of this strangeness is that I frequently catch myself thinking that I will return to Doha. Simple things like buying something at a store and immediately wanting to make sure we take delivery before I have to return. And then I realize I'm not returning. Besides these moments of realization, I've been very busy settling back into our home, taking delivery of my shipment, and placing things around our home that were part of my life in Doha.

I've actually been surprised throughout the last week that I've had relatively few moments of remorse about leaving Doha. I assume it is because I was so excited to get home to be with Diane and the rest of the family. What I miss most about Doha are the people with who I interacted on a daily basis. Everyone from my work colleagues to security staff, cleaning staff, trainers and workout friends in the fitness room - I miss them all and have moments when I simply long to see them and exchange good wishes.

The funniest part of my return occurred the first night back. I went to bed early after the 14+ hour flight and woke up at 1:30 a.m Chicago time. My mind was racing on all sorts of things from work-related, to acclimating to Chicago, to things I wanted to do. Obviously, 1:30 a.m. was not a time that I could ask Diane to get up to talk or for me to go to the piano for a little practice. I knew I couldn't get back to sleep so I decided to start a list of things on my mind. Well, seven pages of hand-written notes later, I had a full list of tasks I want to dive into, ways I want to influence U.S. higher education, places I want to go, and volunteer/enrichment activities I want to pursue in retirement. After Diane got up 5 hours later, she asked me what I had been doing. What exploded from me was a bit overwhelming and later when I described the scene to Devin (oldest daughter) she commented that maybe I should consider taking my foot off the accelerator!

I plan to keep track of how things unfold over the next weeks and months through my blog. Understanding the process of repatriating is as important as understanding how expatriate choose to work abroad and how they engage the experience. Thus far, repatriation and reverse culture shock seem to be less of a hurdle than I anticipated.

Sunday, November 09, 2014

One week left

Over the last couple of months I began the logistical and emotional journey of repatriating to the U.S. after seven years in Qatar. Since this isn’t only a journey to a different place but a journey to a different way of being, I haven’t really known what to expect. As of this last weekend, the logistics are pretty much in place – had a garage sale, sold the car and piano, and completed the preparation for shipping my belongings. I still have the processes of cancelling my residence permit, clearing my ville, arranging bank closure, and a couple of other things but the week is manageable.

The emotional journey has been a mix of everyday life coupled with occasional moments where I suddenly react, “Oh, this is the last…” Because I am so excited about being back with my family, the idea of not seeing some of my friends and colleagues here has not been bad but I anticipate that, as the time nears, I am likely to struggle.

An odd emotional moment occurred in bidding farewell to my piano on this last Friday morning. I had to leave early to participate in a student leadership development desert challenge so I left my ville key with the family who bought the piano, allowing them to pick up the piano whenever they could. As I was waiting to be picked up at 7:30 a.m., I played several Rachmaninoff pieces, ending with the Rachmaninoff Prelude IV, Op. 23, No. 4. The Prelude IV was the first piece I picked up when I began to get serious about practicing again so it has a special meaning to me as the invitation to what has been a rediscovery of music in my life.

The Prelude IV, Op. 23, No. 4 concludes with a last crescendo from pianissimo to mezzo forte, a silent (and in my interpretation prolonged) pause, and a very simple a-major 7th chord resolving into d-major. My body reacts to this final phrase by gradually releasing a deep and long breath as the last crescendo rises. Then my body automatically draws in a quick a renewing breath in the pause and then releases a final exhale as the final two chords resolve quietly in a never- ending and peaceful silence. The notes and the entire experience of breathing with the music are a relief to my body and my heart. I hope that the little piano that gave me so much pleasure understood what I was saying…

I have been so privileged to work in Qatar, to discover worlds I never imagined, and to rediscover music as a central part of my life. Many, many years ago I thought I wanted to be a concert pianist but the pressure of performance made me too nervous to play my best when performing for others; thus, I moved to higher education. The journey of higher education has been incredible and fulfilling, ending with this last crescendo in Qatar. Perhaps, I’ll have a last crescendo with music when I return to be with Diane, the girls, our sons-in-law, and little Reese…

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Reeves - Brookings Institute paper on the American dream

Analysis and concern over the impact of the growing disparity of opportunity and income in the U.S. is addressed in Reeve's Brookings Institute paper.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Maximizing participation - in all ways

Pursuing leadership is about understanding leadership from a variety of perspectives.  Lately I've become more curious, and concerned, about economic and political leadership because of what I fear is a dangerous trend of growing privilege held by few and maintained/exaggerated by an oligarchy of political influence.  Before pointing any fingers, I own that I am privileged by comparison to many in the world.  I also want to assert that there isn't anything wrong with wealth, as long as it came deservedly to those who work hard, innovate, and contribute to the public good while privately benefiting from their effort.  It is isolated and protectionist wealth that concerns me.

Nick Hanauer refers to himself as a plutocrat who was lucky by birth, experience, and opportunity.  And he warns his fellow plutocrats that "trickle-down economics" never has, nor will, work and that maximizing participation for those who are not part of the plutocracy is the only way to create sustainable prosperity for all. He's the one who is advocating for an increase in minimum wage so that more people can have the means to spend into an economy that can grow.  He owns that he makes 1,000 times the average worker and then makes the logical assertion that there is no way he could spend all he has.  The only way to increase economic vitality is to spread wealth, rather than holding it and using it in ways that exacts "rent" from those who are not so privileged.

Responses to Nick Hanauer's TED talk have been mixed, with one criticism in Forbes being very strong.  The claim is that Hanauer's analysis is shallow and more about taxation than economic participation.  It's probably worth reviewing both perspectives.

I plan to come back to this topic after finishing Joseph Stiglitz' The Price of Inequality.  Stiglitz makes many of the same points as Nick Hanauer but with more evidence.  Once I finish my reading, I'll again post my thoughts on maximizing participation as a critical and necessary part of economic and political leadership in today's world.

Monday, June 23, 2014

Morgan - Lost History

I was so enthused after reading Michael Morgan's Lost History: The Enduring Legacy of Muslim Scientists, Thinkers, and Artists (2007) that I searched for other reviews to make sure I wasn't missing something - I didn't so I heartily encourage readers to dig in for an introduction to a different view of Islam than is perpetuated in most contemporary media.  Morgan provided meticulous and authoritative documentation in this resource for those who want to understand Islam, its emergence, history, and movement throughout the Middle East, Europe, and Asia.

Each major segment of the book is introduced with a contemporary (21st century) story and then reflects back to the historical period related to that example.  The first example of this was in Chapter 1, “Rome’s children.”  The contemporary context was a family outing in Tours, in the Loire Valley of France.  The family, originally Moroccan and now living in France, had no idea that Tours was the site where much of the Muslim world’s technology advantage was transferred to Europe.  An early settlement in Roman Gaul, Tours was where Christian forces, led by Charles Martel, encountered the highly developed organization and technology of advancing Muslim military forces.  Against all odds, the Christian forces persevered and were the beneficiaries of Muslims leaving their devices and armaments behind as they fled in the night.  These abandoned resources would first be adopted in the military but would also spur other technology advances never before seen in Europe.

One of the most revealing aspects of Lost History is its tracking of the various groups within Islam.  Particularly of interest in this time of conflict between Sunni and Shiite in Iraq, Morgan traces the slaughter of the Umayyad (predecessor of Sunni) Caliphate in Damascus at the hands of the Abbasid (predecessor of Shiite) Caliphate which would result in Damascus being abandoned and the Umayyad starting their great center for learning and culture in Cordoba, Spain, and the Abbasids doing the same in Baghdad.  The Umayyad legacy will include support of the Christians of Spain who would become the linguists translating Latin, Greek and Hebrew classics into Arabic as well Jews fleeing Visigoth persecution who would become the traders and financiers for their Muslim protectors.

The twists and turns that resulted in shifting centers for the Muslim world ultimately may have contributed to the advancement of Islamic learning and innovation.  Even though the conflicts destroyed many things, each time conflict arose, new centers emerged as knowledge and inquiry unfolded in mathematics, astronomy, geography, music, and medicine.  The revival of Lost History that Morgan recounts documents that much of the base on which European advancement was built was derived from the major centers of learning and advancement of the Muslim world.  The only thing that obscured this contribution was the Anglicization of names that Europeans could not pronounce, denying the real benefactors their rightful place in intellectual history.

Although Lost History charts many conflicts and battles both within Islam as well as across other religions (most notably Judaism and Christianity), there have been multiple voices within Islam that declared the importance of inter-faith understanding and cooperation, including the Prophet Muhammad himself.  Sufi mystic Jalal ad-Din al-Rumi, declared in mid-13th century (page 243):
In the adorations and benedictions of righteous men
The praises of all the prophets are kneaded together,
All their praises are mingled into one stream,
All the vessels are emptied into one ewer.
Because He that is praised is, in fact, only One.
In this respect all religions are only one religion.
Because all praises are directed toward God’s Light,
These various forms and figures are borrowed from it.

The last chapter, “Enlightened Leadership,” is particularly poignant in advocating a view of leadership that most leadership educators today would quickly endorse.  It gives credit for the many advancements in knowledge and understanding throughout the period so heavily influenced by Islam to a vision of leadership based on “democratic behavior, consensus building, conflict resolution and responsiveness to public opinion.” (page 254)  Abu Bakr, the first Caliph to follow the Prophet Muhammad, left a legacy of “humility, compromise, incorruptibility, and a dedication to charity and public welfare” (page 255) that would shape the faithful practice of Islam for the 7th century as well as today.

Lost History was not only an informative read but it stimulated deep hope that Islam’s future will unfold to embrace the intellectual vigor, commitment to peaceful coexistence, and humble leadership that have echoed among its Muslim brothers and sisters over the ages.