PEOPLE WHO WORK IN NATIONAL PARK LODGES

We’ve
come to the end of this series of blogs celebrating Northwest Loop
lodges. But lodges are far more than wood, steel, stone, and glass:
it takes flesh and blood people to bring them to life. Since most
NW lodges close during winter months, it should come as no surprise
to discover that most workers are seasonal, many being students
during the winter months. I couldn’t help but notice a parallel to
life during the Great Depression of the 1930s, when Americans
(especially the young) flooded out of the cities and into the
nation’s heartland, seeking enough work to stay alive.
“Brother, can you spare a dime,” the mantra for that
generation. The difference this time having to do with our
changing mores. Back then, most of those who left home were
males; that is not true today. When we asked those who waited
tables, cleaned rooms, or otherwise kept the park lodges running
smoothly, where they came from, we quickly discovered that they
came from all across the U.S., Canada, and from around the
world. When asked why, one response predominated: “Since I
couldn’t get a job, I decided to follow my dream and see places
I’ve always wanted to see.” Or, “Since I couldn’t afford
college tuition, I logged in at websites such as Coolworks.com to see what was
available out there.” Some were recent graduates unable to
land a full-time job. Collectively, these workers were a very
attractive mix: clearly the best, cleanest-cut, most adventurous of
their age-group. Since I’m such a romantic, I asked a number
of them what resulted from the juxtaposition of young people of
both sexes in these lodge facilities. They’d smile and admit
to “lots of romances—more romances than marriages.” Yet, a
surprisingly large number spoke of marriages. One young man,
at Paradise Inn, Mount Rainier National Park, paused after my
questioning before musing, “You know . . . I must be a throwback to
my parents. . . . They met at a facility like
this, and have worked in parks ever since. They
love what they do! So it’s affected me
too. Growing up in the great out-of-doors, I couldn’t even
imagine being cooped up in a city! . . . . So, yes, I’ll
probably marry one of my co-workers just like my folks did.” They
were a most mobile group. Freed by the worldwide web to soar
across the nation and the world at the flick of a mouse, state or
national borders meant nothing to them. Shoot! All they
needed was a backpack and enough money to put food in their mouths
and pay the small fees required at youth hostels. They were
unabashedly rootless and loved the life. Their preferred
network: word of mouth. In a rain forest near Lake Quinault,
Bob and I met three very attractive coeds who were building
railings on park trails for the Oregon counterpart to FDR’s
Civilian Conservation Corps. Clearly, they were having a
wonderful time! Indeed, they were bubbling over
with joie de vivre. At Stehekin, that “island”
in time of a Shangri-la on Lake Chelan, one of the young waitresses
could be found during off-hours reading Jane Austen on a rustic
wooden bench, meditatively dreaming the vision of water and
mountains away. At Yellowstone Lake Hotel, a young string quartet
from one of the most prestigious music schools on the East Coast
confessed to coming here every summer, so that they could interact
with like-minded people from all around the world, work with
students who, like them, were lovers of the wide world, adventurers
all, and revel in hikes into every corner of Yellowstone and the
Tetons. “What’s not to like about that?” * * * * * But we
were more surprised by the number of older people we found working
in the park. At Stehekin, the postmaster chuckled as she told
of her daily excitement: carrying her bag of outgoing mail to the
boat just before it returned to Chelan. “Postal regulations
mandate that I lock the door when I leave, but I really don’t need
to. People here are honest.” When asked if she was a
native, she laughed again, “Oh, goodness, no! My husband and
I, as retirees, were sick and tired of the sameness of our lives,
so when we heard of this job, we jumped at the chance to move
here. My husband works in maintenance. Here I’m
needed, and we’ve just fallen in love with the
people here. I just couldn’t imagine leaving this magical
place.” At Old Faithful Inn, that madhouse of seething humanity,
during the unnatural serenity of one of the Old Faithful
Geyser-induced ebb-tides, I asked a lovely young woman,
effervescent, radiating happiness, and eager to be of service to
people like us, what brought her there—but before she could even
answer, an older woman broke in: “But what about me—aren’t you even
interested in me?” Then it was almost
like a dam broke as she poured out her story: Left alone at
midlife, she chanced to come to Old Faithful Inn to work for the
summer–and got hooked. She said, “I’ve been coming back here
every summer for over twenty years. It’s my life! I
live for coming back here every summer. Those who work here,”
and she looked fondly at her beautiful co-worker, “are my
children, and they treat me as though I’m
their mother. Oh the stories I get to hear!” In Colorado, I
met a United Airlines pilot retiree, who when I told him where I’d
been, responded with, “Let me tell you about my folks. Many
years ago, my mother-in-law, then a college student from back East,
from a well-to-do family, suddenly decided she wanted to go out
west to work in Yellowstone for the summer. Her father,
aghast at his daughter even daring to do such a thing, reluctantly
permitted her to go, but first made her accept a derringer for
protection. So when I asked him what happened afterwards, he
paused, a far-away look in his eyes: “Well, she never had to use
her derringer—but she did marry her employer,
the manager of Old Faithful Inn.” * * * * * These are just a few of
the stories we heard during our all-too-brief visits to these
wonderful old lodges. As an author, I’ve discovered that most
everyone I meet has a fascinating story to tell, reminding me of
that moving observation by Hans Christian Andersen: Each
of our lives is a fairy tale, written by the hand of
God
.

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TIMBERLINE LODGE

Timberline Lodge

After regretfully bidding a too-soon-goodbye to Oregon Caves Chateau, we wound our way back down to the Redwood Highway. Late evening found us at Gold Beach Resort where our 28th annual Zane Grey’s West Society convention was to be held. Two days later, my 28th keynote address had to do with Zane Grey’s greatest obsession in life: to become the world’s greatest fisherman. After five wonderful nights of listening to the waves thunder in, we re-packed the Lincoln. It was easier now that we’d shipped three boxes of our stuff back to Colorado—yet perversely the trunk remained full.

We drove up 101 to Reedsport, where we bade our adieus to the Pacific—the Oregon Coast has to be one of the world’s most beautiful stretches of sea and sand—and took Highway 36 East, feeling we had good company as Zane Grey’s river, the Umpqua, followed us. Then we were back on I-5. I recited my favorite freeway quotation: Charles Kuralt’s, “Thanks to the interstate highway system, it is now possible to travel coast to coast without seeing anything.”

Finally, we reached our road, Hwy 26, and angled east into Mt. Hood National Wilderness. Then it was six steep miles up to Timberline Lodge. Since it was late June it was a bit of a shock to see so many skiers, for in Colorado our ski-lifts had closed for the season some time before. After checking in, we carried our luggage up to our to-be-expected small room. A TV set peered out at us with a sheepish look, as much as to say, “I know I don’t belong here, but what could I do?” More in keeping with the times, in the room were an antique telephone and fan, and an old wind-up clock. And single beds.

Mt. Hood

While the rest explored inside the hotel, I shutterbugged my way across the snowfield above the hotel. From there, it seemed like you could see forever. I didn’t know it then, but it was, without doubt, the grandest panoramic view—I could see snow-capped Mount Jefferson; farther away were Mt. Washington and the Three Sisters—we’d see during our entire trip. Snowcats loaded with tired skiers passed me en route to the lodge.

Dinner in the Cascade Dining Room was all I hoped it would be. We were lucky enough to get a window table. Afterwards, we played Phase Ten, ruined by Connie’s whupping us! Then everyone else retired, but I needed to write cards to our children and grandchildren and catch up in my journal. But there was no fire in the fireplace. When I asked why, one of the clerks at the front desk answered, “Sir, we can make one for you—where are you sitting?” Not long afterwards, I had my fire, my evening complete.

TIMBERLINE’S STORY

The lodge was born in the depths of the Great Depression. I chronicle the story of that time-period in my book, What’s So Good About Tough Times? (Colorado Springs: WaterBrook/Random House, 2001). It began on October 24, 1929—known forever after as Black Thursday—and continued its downward plunge through October 29—Black Tuesday. The free-fall continued: thirty billion lost during two short weeks. Panic gripped the nation.

Day after day, week after week, month after month, and year after year passed—things only got worse. By the time 1931 drew to a close, of the 122 million Americans, five million were unemployed; jobless rates reaching 50% in some areas. More than two million people wandered across the country as vagrants. Four hundred banks had failed and there was then no Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation. Everywhere one looked, once proud, self-sufficient men and women had been reduced to begging for enough food so their families could survive another day. Since there were no credit cards, one either had money or one did not. Not without reason were six words seared into American consciousness for all time: Brother, can you spare a dime?

Things only got worse. By January 1932, more than two thousand banks had failed and thirteen million people were out of work. That November, desperate Americans tossed Hoover out of the White House and elected Franklin D. Roosevelt. Now 25% of the nation was without jobs, five thousand banks had collapsed, and in that maelstrom nine million family savings and checking accounts disappeared forever. And it continued on and on, the economy not recovering until World War II in the 1940s. Roosevelt’s response was the New Deal, the Work Progress Administration (WPA), and the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC); in these programs, FDR did his best to put the nation back to work. (Wheeler, 1-3).

In the midst of this Depression, Emerson J. Griffith, WA Director for Oregon, searching for ways to put Oregonians to work, came up with the idea of building a lodge on Mount Hood, at 11,235 feet, Oregon’s highest mountain, a mecca for mountaineers, skiers, and travelers. On Dec. 17, 1935, according to Christine Barnes, the WPA approved the project. The U.S. Forest Service provided the land, and Congressional and private funding was promised. Then began the search for an architect of note. Gilbert Stanley Underwood, who’d already left his mark on Yosemite, Bryce, Zion, and Grand Canyon national parks, was selected. But the U.S. Forest Service’s architects determined to have their say as well. In the end, both sides agreed to make Timberline a joint venture.

The result was a central wigwam roof, with two wings; at the center would be a massive octagonal fireplace—later changed to hexagonal. Instead of Underwood’s preferred great log exterior, park architects chose a board-and-batten, clapboard, and stone exterior, typical of some of Portland’s grandest mansions. The lodge was designed to grow right out of the mountain, the 92-foot high central conical head-house fireplace looming above the lodge roofline in the same manner the mountain itself juts up from its base. Wisely, they positioned the hotel at 6,000 feet, at the foot of the Palmer Snowfield, to capitalize on its potential to thereby attract skiers. Hundreds of unemployed were now put to work.

Underwood’s two-entry concept had to do with separating two potential clientele: skiers used the ground entry, and recreational visitors used the upper. The great hexagonal chimney sports six fireplaces, three in the lower lounge and three in the upper one. Griffith and park architects concluded that blacksmithing, wood-carving, and weaving would complement the architecture; a stroke of genius had to do with enlisting Portland interior decorator Margery Hoffman Smith to bring a “woman’s touch” to the project; she it was who brought stylistic harmony to the interior. What makes the lodge extra special is all the whimsical wood carvings of animals of the Northwest, some even in the balustrades.

One of the hand carved owl balustrade on the stairway.

It was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to harness all these creative people who were longing to make a difference and desperately needed the work. What no one had anticipated was the resultant explosion of creativity on the part of the artisans; the result was much the same as what made Europe’s soaring Gothic cathedrals such masterpieces: each workman, even if carving or sculpting a portion of the structure far above the ground level—if it were but a gargoyle—gave it his all as if it were to last forever. Griffith, in a telegram, put it this way: “These men indeed feel they are putting their skill into a cathedral. Coming up from the depths of despair they work with a spiritual exaltation that sometimes amazes me.” (Barnes, 69).

President Roosevelt was there, on September 28. 1937, to dedicate Timberline Lodge to the nation; the ceremony was carried live on radio. It cost far more than estimated: $1,000,000 instead of $250,000. But today, a million visitors a year flood in. Because of this, the lodge is continually re-created with craftsmen who replace the furniture, drapery, bedspreads, ironwork, leatherwork, etc., in order to preserve the original look, quality, and condition. One of these contemporary ironworkers, Darryl Nelson noted that “The best compliment they can give us is when we see someone looking at iron we just put in and they’re saying, ‘Boy, they don’t make stuff like this any more.’” (Barnes, 71).

Like most of these wondrous old lodges, Timberline went through its tough times: it was closed during World War II; after the war, mismanagement forced it to close its doors for nonpayment of utility bills. It was saved only because of the single-minded passion of Richard Kohnstamm; his son, Jeff, keeps the dream alive today. Today, when its now world-famous Palmer Snowfield that retains its snow year-round makes Timberline home to one of the most energetic ski and snowboard scenes on the planet. Here organized training camps from all over the world work on their skills all through the summer months in the longest ski season in North America. (This section, Barnes, 61-71).

* * * * *

Miraculously, this one-of-a-kind treasure of a lodge is still with us. It is different from most other old lodges in that it is urban (only minutes away from Portland); like it or not, it is loved to death by millions. If people like Bob and Lucy Earp, Connie and me feel outnumbered by the skiers, if we miss the great unified lobbies of sister lodges, and the serenity that keeps them alive into a new century, we ought not to begrudge sharing Timberline with others who cherish it for different reasons than we do.

SOURCES

Barnes, Christine, Great Lodges of the National Parks I (Bend, Oregon: W. W. West, Inc., 2002). [Be sure and secure a copy of this book, for the “rest of the story”!]

AAA book on Oregon [an invaluable source].

“The Art of Timberline,” (Portland, OR: Friends of Timberline, n.d.

“Timberline” (Timberline Lodge brochure).

“Timberline Lodge—an Expression of Hope and Purpose” (U.S. Forest Service brochure)

SPECIAL NOTE

Next Wednesday, we move on to Paradise Inn on the slopes of Mount Rainier.

PLAGIARISM—WHY AMERICANS CANNOT NOT CHEAT

Colorado GOP gubernatorial candidate Scott McInnis is but the latest reminder that, in the Internet Age, one can run but cannot hide from one’s words: Plagiarism is getting increasingly difficult to hide—as McInnis has discovered to his chagrin. Former University of Colorado regent Jim Martin, in his “Dishonesty in the Internet Age” (The Denver Post, July 15, 2010), notes that “A story several years ago on NPR’s ‘All Things Considered’ profiled a University of Virginia professor’s new innovation to catch Internet cheaters—a search engine that can locate patterns of phrasing and match them to other works. The device has already turned up a number of cheaters not only in academia, but also in other areas of our lives.”

As a long-time English and writing professor I can testify that it is incredibly easy to spot cheating in term papers, for once I get a feel for an individual’s style of writing (in controlled writing assignments in classrooms), any significant stylistic deviance from the norm jumps out at me. The difficulty heretofore has been to track down the source the student copied from. No longer: my teaching colleagues tell me that it’s amazing how quickly they can track down an original source thanks to Google et al.

Which brings us to the core issue: Why do we cheat?

Increasingly, we cheat because we cannot not cheat. Permit me to explain why. Before I wrote my book, Remote Controlled (Review and Herald Publishing, 1993), I first researched the subject of the impact of television on the American people for over 30 years. One of the key resulting epiphanies of that research was this: the ability to think, write, and create is not a given; it is extremely difficult to achieve because it can only come into being by having an inquiring mind; a sense of wonder; by questions that never stop; by voracious reading in books, magazines, and newspapers; by daily journaling. Where writing is concerned, we are all works in progress—we never arrive, because knowledge is increasing by the nanosecond. That’s why the Chinese have a proverb: “If you haven’t read in three days, you aren’t worth listening to.” Staying in tune with the Zeitgeist has never been more difficult than it is today.

Nor is it easy to be a researcher (the job Scott McInnis was paid $300,000 for). I tell my students, “It’s not easy to write a good term paper. Unless you so immerse yourself into reading about your chosen subject, and writing notes from all those sources, you’ll never experience that mysterious breakthrough marathon runners talk about: when you literally break through a mental or physical barrier into a new dimension—you’ll know you’re there when you start dreaming about it. When that happens, you can write your paper in your own style. Otherwise, you’ll only be capable of a String of Pearls term paper: one quotation followed by insipid words leading to another quotation—on and on and on. Because the subject never became part of you.”

And that’s the tragedy of our age. We encourage our children to follow the path of least resistance—they faithfully follow our suggestion. How? By staring zombie-like into electronic screens hour after hour. But virtually none of that imagery can ever be their own: it was all created by someone else, and thus it was blasted straight into their mental archives without any involvement of the receiver’s brain. That’s why, when I tell a class of Freshman Composition students to take out a sheet of paper and begin to write, the reader (having many stylistic templates to draw from) can hardly wait to begin writing; the non-reader, however, can only stare at the piece of paper, being incapable of writing a coherent sentence or paragraph.

That’s why millions who grow up plagiarizing cannot not cheat: because of years of mental laziness, there is nothing original (unique to them alone) in their brains to draw from. So they have only two alternatives: fail the course—or cheat.

But when they grow up and enter the workaday world, sooner or later there will come a day of reckoning, when the boss will discover that this particular employee is incapable of original thought. Fortune 500 CEOs have developed a test for prospective employees that involves a series of interlocking steps leading to a solution. When the prospects take the test, they discover that a step was left out (such as A, B, D, E); the reader, having developed a part of the brain scholars call “the library,” where the brain talks to itself, is able to bridge the gulf, or synapse, en route to a solution. The non-reader can only stare at the gulf till Doomsday, unable to move on.

Which brings us back to Jim Martin, who concludes his insightful commentary with these sober words:

Our age of instant information offers in nearly every aspect of business, academia and media the temptation to exalt outcome over process, to value doing something quickly over doing it effectively and honestly.

Somehow, our citizens have come to believe that money or pride matters more than integrity. And we have allowed this to happen.

Our lessons about achieving excellence, getting into the “best” schools and colleges, getting elected to public office and the general opulence and promise offered of e-business have sent a dangerous message to our citizens people: you can have it all and have it now.

Maybe public exposure will put an end to this character defect, but I doubt it. In the long run, society at large will have to re-establish the values of effort and process, rather than simply holding up too high the rewards of success, power, being elected, or money.

All in all, this will be a difficult task, but the message must go out loud and clear—that there is no such thing as instantaneous writing, and that those shortcuts shortchange.

That message may sound old and familiar, but that’s because it is lifted from the familiar lessons of life, not some site on the Internet.

SPECIAL NOTE

Next week, we begin a four-month series of blogs on our historic national park lodges in the Northwest (we just returned from visiting each one).

FORMAL EDUCATION—LET THE BUYER BEWARE

In last Wednesday’s blog, I touched on a number of things about formal education that are good, positive, and helpful growth-wise. In this week’s, we’ll deal with formal education’s down-side. Since I’m a product of homeschooling; parochial education; state university education; ivy league education; teaching in junior high, senior high, junior college, college/university, adult education; as well as independent research, editing, and writing, I feel I can now approach formal education objectively.

First and foremost, formal education is not the real world; each segment of it is a self-propelled entity bordering on virtual reality. Thus it is a grave mistake to assume that academic success will equate with real world career-success. In fact, the two are not very compatible with each other. Let me explain:

Once your parents enroll you in formal education—let’s say kindergarten—, it’s like an assembly-line or car-wash; your own engine is left on a siding for it won’t be needed for a long time. Year after year, your teachers and administrators will be your engineers; all you have to do is follow orders. Over time, you become ever more subservient to these academic demi-gods who have such awesome power over you; if they dislike you, they can cripple your future career by lowering your grade or failing you outright, for grading is one of the most subjective and least-understood things on earth—paradoxically, even among educators themselves.

But what happens when you graduate at last and enter the job market? What all too many discover is that their own engine has remained on a siding for so long, it’s all rusted out. They no longer know how to be self -propelling. Many never do get the old engine up and running again; in such cases, they either accept other-directedness or find some job position in academia, the only world they understand. And some (a real serendipity to school administrators and business managers) become perpetual students: always learning but never putting their learning into practice.

Also, in degree areas that ostensibly equate with the real world (such as business, management, economics, technology, engineering, etc.), there is invariably a significant gap between cutting-edge developments in the real world and academic catch-up. For instance, schools of business are now reeling because the template they were basing their degrees on has dramatically revealed its obsolescence in the plunging, undulating roller coasterish stock market in today’s recessionary times, where no one is perceived to have the answers any more: not Wall Street, not economists, not pundits, not talking heads, not overseeing bureaucrats—not even that erstwhile golden boy of investors: Warren Buffett—no one appears to have the answers. Least of all, academia.

Another weakness of formal education is that it is so stratified and straitjacketed by regulations that it more often than not fails to adequately challenge eager learners. All too often, especially in elementary and secondary education, it degenerates into a form of social homogenization and control. If a teacher has 25 – 35 squirming bodies in a given class, s/he cannot possibly do justice to each one, therefore administrators will, more often than not, judge teacher performance by classroom discipline (that’s far easier to measure).

One significant weakness of formal regimented education is that it makes no room for side-trips. You are told to study certain things; and if you regurgitate them according to the teacher’s expectations and demands, you may be awarded an A. Thus, if I am taking a literature course, and told to study only one play by Shakespeare—say King Lear—, there is no incentive for me to also read Hamlet or Richard II. But—if I am taking but one literature class at a time, or being homeschooled, or reading on my own, while I’m at it, I can read Shakespeare clear through. Which I’ve done. But not while taking a full-load in an academic institution. Actually, I’ve experienced far more mental growth taking just one class at a time than I ever have taking a full-load, where I have to rush just to keep up with the teacher’s reading demands.

Also, formal education is hard on individual creativity. In the vast majority of instances, you are not rewarded for creativity, but rather by conformity to the demands of the teacher or the system. Mavericks are tolerated at best. Those who tend to think outside the box are not generally popular in academia—unless you’re a McArthur or Fullbright scholar, of course.

I guess what I’m getting at in this blog is this: I am not suggesting that we throw out the proverbial baby with the bath water. What I am suggesting is that we realize up-front that academia cannot be considered to be “real world”—that is not its function. Thus, if you wish to be truly successful in real life, then that presupposes that you will continue to keep your own engine in good running order, with plenty of independent side trips to give it exercise. Parallel to your formal education ought to be a major emphasis on personal growth (based on such things as voracious reading and journaling from books, magazines, newspapers, judicious use of the media, travel, lectures, personal inquiry, research, writing, etc). If you do these things, you will have a counterbalance to the dependence that invariably results from grade-dominated formal education. Thus you may end up with the best of both worlds.

DON’T LET CONCRETE SETTLE IN YOUR HEAD

The moment you’re satisfied with what you’ve got,
The concrete has begun to settle in your head.”
—Reader’s Digest

Modern technology has made it imperative that education be lifelong rather than merely a stage. Do you remember the feeling, as a child, of holding on to the circular bar of a playground merry-go-round as it went faster and faster, and the centrifugal force was so great you felt that at any moment you’d blindly sail off into space? Sometimes the frantic pace of our lives produces the same feeling. Yet, the price of just letting go is higher than one might think.

Nicholas Murray Butler put it this way: “If your curve of efficiency is ascending at 45, and keeps ascending after that period, it may well move upward for your whole life, but if there is a turn downward at 45, you will never recover.” Of course the age designation of 45 is a relative term.

The good Lord created us to grow at every stage of our lives—and on into eternity. Again and again, in His parables, Christ hammered home the message that continual growth is a divine mandate, not merely an option.

Some years ago, in Texas, I was privileged to develop, implement, and run an adult degree program created for all those who seek to re-board the growth-wagon of life. Those were some of the most energizing years I ever experienced. What a difference between those students and the average college students (18 – 22 years old) who more often than not are clueless about life and rarely pose Life’s Three Eternal Questions: Who am I? Where have I come from? and Where am I going? All too many flounder through their college years, drop out, or graduate without any real sense of purpose, or even direction.

Not so adult students! When they re-enter the academic world they remind you of Shakespeare’s Cassius:

“Yond Cassius has a lean and hungry look”

That’s just it: they come back because they are hungry for what they once took for granted, and are frantically trying to make up for lost time. Indeed some keep sighing, “Oh, I keep thinking of all the years I’ve lost,” as though that loss of momentum precludes ever climbing back on Life’s Juggernaut. I refused to accept such a cop-out; most would sheepishly grin and sign up when I posed this reality to them: “You know, five years from now you’re going to be five years older whether or not you begin the degree process—why not at least be aiming somewhere?”

It was surprising to discover how many were back because they’d finally realized one of life’s most brutal realities: they might very well be the men or women who, more than any others, propelled their company or institution to success, but almost invariably someone with that piece of parchment we call a degree was holding the key position of leadership in their sector, and drawing a commensurate paycheck. And it never ceased to amaze me how quickly my adult students would move up the career ladder once their bosses discovered they were enrolled in a degree program and were making steady progress towards that goal.

That’s really what degrees do for you. They don’t by themselves make you more intelligent, but because people perceive that they do, they validate in the public’s eye everything you do, write, or say. Then there is the requisite self-discipline. Employers feel that anyone who has earned a degree has exhibited staying-power, something they’re always seeking in their top employees.

Degrees accomplish something else in our lives. Sort of like the Millionaire game show: if you miss a given question, you can only drop back so far (to the last major plateau). Just so degrees offer you achievement plateaus you can drop back to, and build towards the next plateau higher up. They represent solid foundational blocks of achievement.

Nor should we ever discount the difference degrees make in our own attitudes toward ourselves. Deserved or undeserved, we stand taller and straighter with them than without. Though it is a subtle difference, we feel it, and it energizes us to continue growing. Each graduation ceremony may thus be likened to another booster rocket in our life’s trajectory.

Given the current rate of technological change, however, degree programs, and even the textbooks prepared for them, may become obsolete before you can even prepare for them. That’s why what your degree is in means less and less each year that passes; it’s the fact that you completed one that makes you a viable job candidate.

Also, as a former chair of English and Communication departments, and hence coordinator of job placement of our graduates, I can testify that, more and more in a society obsessed with electronics, there is developing an ever more desperate search for women and men who can think rationally, reason from cause to effect, explore different schools of thought without getting argumentative, and articulate coherently and persuasively both in speech and on paper.

So, wherever we are in life, the truly imperative thing is that each of us needs to make sure we’re in a growth mode. Not to be in one is a living death.

I’ll leave the last word today to Phillips Brooks:

The ideal life is in our blood and never will be still. Sad will be the day for us when we become contented with the thoughts we are thinking and the deeds we are doing—where there is not forever beating at the doors of our souls some desire to do something larger, which we know that we were meant and made to do.

DRILL SERGEANT MOTHER HENS

Without a doubt, those four words describe her perfectly. More on her later.

* * * * *

Most of the truly important lessons I’ve learned in life, I’ve learned the hard way. Unquestionably, my most significant growth occurred after I was fired . . . twice. Everyone ought to get fired at least once in life, just for the learning that follows.

It was at a book-signing that she came up to me, introducing herself with these trenchant words: “You don’t know me, but you ought to: Years ago, at ______, you fired me before you took over as Vice President. That was a big mistake, because I could have made you a success, so you wouldn’t have lost your job.” Turns out, she was right: upon the advice of my predecessor, I had fired the one person who could have saved me. In those days, I was incredibly naive about the real world outside cloistered academia. My relevant epiphany had not yet taken place.

That was the slow slogging result of years of door-to-door book sales and fund-raising. Can’t remember the breakthrough moment, only that my life has never been the same since. That’s one thing that really amazes me about life: the greatest truths are known and internalized by so few.

Here it is:     Every organization has two chains of command: de facto and de jure. The truly successful people know which is which, and act accordingly.

One of them, the de jure, everybody knows about instinctively–the logical one. The one on letterheads and power-flow charts. The person on top (usually a man) is the boss. The next one down is next in importance, and so on, each one proportionally less important, until you get to the bottom. These are the ones most everyone goes to when they need something. But is it valid? Ostensibly, yes. If you ask the person at the bottom for something, you go through your entire spiel, and chances are the answer will be, “Terribly sorry, but you’ll have to talk to _______ [the next person up]; and so it is that you keep getting bumped up to the top. Almost to the top, because the boss is always too busy to talk to you. Same with phone queries.

The other one, the de-facto, almost nobody knows about, because it’s not on letterhead or power flow charts. The only ones who know about it are insiders, and they won’t talk about it. Why? Because it’s too precious, coming under the abstract heading: “Knowledge is power.”

It works this way: in each department, there is a go-to person (usually a woman). There has to be, or the entire organization will collapse, for somebody has to be in charge, know how to negotiate the system. Combined in that one person are two oxymoronic qualities: being both a drill-sergeant and a mother hen. Externally no nonsense and hard as nails; deep down, loving, kind, caring, appreciative, tender, empathetic, and supportive.

What is really intriguing is that these de facto go-to people each report to another, higher up, just like them. Up and up and up till you get to the very top. That’s why, when I want to get or learn something, I by-pass the letterhead people and start with the top. Not the CEO, of course, but most likely his personal secretary (usually a woman); I call on her because she runs the entire organization. It would disintegrate without her.

Even her supposed boss trembles in her presence because he is powerless without her. Alienate her at your own risk because if she loses faith in you, you are history. All she has to do is cash in enough of the thousands of chips (“I owe you’s”) she has in her arsenal, and you walk. Since she alone has in her mental lock box all the corporate memory (also all the skeletons, and she knows in which closets they can be found), she cannot possibly be defeated. Not only is she a king-maker, she is also a king-unmaker.

I’m guessing the reason it’s usually a woman is that women (down through history generally being considered of less value than men) have learned to rule by networking among themselves and through empathetic men. They laugh at letterheads and power flow charts. They let those on them strut and preen their feathers as they grandstand on talk shows and to talking-heads. They laugh because they know where the real power is, how to use it, how to get things done—and how to stop everything in its tracks.

* * * * *

Now back to Sacramento two and a half weeks ago. On Friday evening, when we entered the restaurant meeting room, no one greeted us. We had to introduce ourselves to each one. Clearly, no one was in charge. All we had were middle-aged alumni who’d been told to show up; well, they had, but without a shepherd they were as clueless as milling sheep. Then suddenly, there was a shout: “She’s here!” “Debbie’s here!” It was almost spontaneous combustion in the room. Debbie Bighaus had finally arrived from the northwest. The one person, the Facebook Wagonmaster, who was single-handedly responsible for our all being there, had arrived—our de facto drill sergeant-mother hen.

Let the party begin!

NON-READER’S DOOMSDAY

What I say today goes for both sexes: the results are the same. As I said earlier, I studied the effects of television for thirty years before I wrote Remote Controlled. Reading/Writing was one of my four doctoral areas of concentration. And I’ve continually explored the interrelationship between reading and writing during my entire academic career (as teacher and administrator), so this is anything but a new subject for me.

Here, in a nutshell, are my findings:

1. If you do not read, relying instead on the digestion of electronic imagery, you are incapable of creating your own mental connotative pictures. In short, you cannot imagine or think original thoughts.

Why? Because if you read, see live drama, or hear radio drama, no two people will create the same mental pictures, because each person responds to word-association according to known experience. Such imagery is stored in your brain as part of your own thinking apparatus. But, if you watch TV, video, cinema, or other electronic imagery, whether one person watches that image or three billion do, every last watcher gets the self same image—because it is pre-fab: someone other than you created it, so it is blasted into your brain’s archives, by-passing your own thought-processors. Over time, tragedy strikes, because being that everything in your brain was created by someone else, you have virtually nothing original to draw from. You’re a zombie.

When given a writing assignment, you’re all but paralyzed. When assigned a term paper, since there’s nothing original to draw from in your head, you cheat—you have to, or fail. You cannot even structure coherent sentences or paragraphs, for all you have in your head is the chaotic jumblings of media and advertising. I’ve seen it over and over in 34 years of teaching: the reader, having many stylistic templates of favorite authors to draw from, can hardly wait to begin; the non-reader just stares glassy-eyed at that blank piece of paper, hoping for a miracle. And today’s epidemic of cheating/plagiarism is threatening the validity of our entire academic system, as untold thousands are submitting research under their names, that were created by someone else.

2. The Chinese have a saying: “If you haven’t read in three days, you aren’t worth listening to.” Just listen to electronic junkies around you, or receive their text-messages—note how vapid, inane, and devoid of structure it is.

When you grow up and get a job, inevitably the day of reckoning will come: when you can no longer hide the fact that you are brain-dead.

3. Nor can your non-reading electronic junkie speak coherently and persuasively. Reason being: there is nothing structured or coherently organized in his/her head.

4. Nor can s/he handle complex thought. Only in simplistic sound-bytes. Recently an international conference of some of the world’s leading church leaders concluded that they question whether democracy and civil liberty can long exist without a literate reading public (routinely digesting newspapers, magazines, and books). For non-readers, being incapable of complex thought, are easy prey to demagogues, extremists, and would-be dictators.

5. They also make lousy employees. Fortune 500 CEOs often determine finalists for key positions by giving top candidates challenges such as five steps to achieving a solution (Steps A, B, C, D, E), and then deliberately leave out a step. The reader has developed a part of the brain scholars call the “Library,” in which the brain talks to itself. When the reading candidate reaches a missing step, she stops, thinks, and then sends out filaments much like a spider, eventually synapsing to the other side, then finishing the test. The non-reader could sit there for a hundred years, incapable of crossing.

6. Furthermore, all the studies reveal that the more hours a day you expose yourself to electronic imagery, the dumber you get—at any age! Because, again, it’s all second-hand; worse yet—well, let me quote Ted Koppel:

“Almost everything said in public today is recorded.
                              Almost nothing said in public today is worth remembering.”

It’s all, to use an academic term: “Majoring in minors.”

* * * * *

Next Wednesday, we’ll start applying all this to our boys and girls. Stay tuned.

CUANDO VAS PARA CHILE

Because of the 8.8 earthquake in Chile this week, I’m throwing in another blog ahead of Wednesday’s.

Last spring, Connie and I (and our cruise buddies, Bob and Lucy Earp) took a cruise from Buenos Aires, Argentina to Valparaiso, Chile, our first opportunity to get acquainted with a country that had been only a name to us before.

The result: we fell in love with Chile and Chileans. Unquestionably, the most poignant moment for us took place just a few miles from Chacabuco.  We had just watched Chilean folk dancers swirling around inside a club house—all the while we’d been gobbling up their delicious (and fattening) empanadas. After dancing a while as couples, the dancers delighted our cruise party by circling through our ranks, waving white handkerchiefs, searching for someone of the opposite sex to dance with them; this amalgamation of Chilean young people and travelers went on for over half an hour.

Finally, it was time to re-board our bus, and our group began filing out.  Unfortunately, we chose to exit during the most haunting song I’d yet heard in Chile.  I stopped, sensing something unusually poignant in the lyrics and melody.  I asked one of the bystanders what it was called, and was told in Spanish that it was “Cuando Vas Para Chile,” a song they sing to travelers so they’d remember and come back; a song so loved it is all but their national anthem.  Afterwards, I got on the mike in the bus and told everyone what they’d missed: our farewell song.  A song that ostensibly is about a loved one, but in a deeper sense the real loved one is that 2,500 mile-long slender strip of a nation, with incredible diversity and beauty.

So it was that we left Chile vowing to return, to get better acquainted with a people who’d captured our hearts in little more than a week.

Thus, now we can visualize the widespread grief that has rolled across Chile in waves since the earthquake devastated the country’s second-largest city, Conception.  True, everyone is aware they’re living on the Pacific Rim of Fire, a vast volcanic zone plagued by eruptions and earthquakes.  But, like most of us here, Chileans just take each day as it comes, hoping this day won’t be the one where it happens.  Unfortunately, Saturday turned out to be just that.

To Connie and me, this particular earthquake wasn’t merely the next earthquake after Haiti—but heartbreak for a people we now loved.  Real people who were no longer mere abstractions to us.  Not coincidentally, the people who make possible, more than any other, our being able to eat fresh fruit and vegetables all during our winter months.

So how can we not respond to their great need?

Si vas para Chile
Te ruego que pases por donde vive mi amada
es un casita, muy linda y chiquita,
que esta en las faldas de un cerro enclavada. . . .

And the song concludes by noting that Chilean villagers will always seek out the traveler and make of him a friend. . . .just as they do.

We’re Losing Our Boys. . . And Men

How I wish they’d been wrong—but they weren’t.

About twenty years ago, Newsweek did a cover story on boys, pointing out widespread concern about something scary that teachers were seeing in classrooms across the country: boys bailing out of the educational process at an ever earlier age.  Mesmerized by the pied pipers of the media and sports, boys were all but ceasing to read, write, or grow intellectually.  If this trend continued, pundits warned, boys will bail out of college and higher education as well—and that would have devastating consequences in terms of the future of our nation.

Ever since reading that study, I’ve been intensely aware of the problem whenever I’m in the presence of students, young or old.  I speak and read to elementary students quite often, and it’s almost always the same: girls are excited about authors, books, ideas, and growth; boys generally make little effort to stifle their yawns.  Of course, thank goodness, there are exceptions—but that’s what they are: exceptions to the norm.

I strongly suspect most parents don’t realize the price their children will pay during the rest of their lives for permitting the media center to replace the home library, the electronic tentacles of cyberspace to replace the daily story hour.  Studies reveal that if a child doesn’t fall in love with reading by the third grade, it’s not likely to ever take place at all.

As to the price we’re paying at this moment in history, just listen to David Brooks (The New York Times, Feb. 17, 2010):

“We’re looking at an extended period of above 8% unemployment.  The biggest impact is on men.  Over the past few decades, men have lagged behind women in acquiring education and skills.  According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, at age 22, 185 women have graduated from college for every 100 men [my italics].  Furthermore, men are concentrated in industries where employment is declining (manufacturing) or highly cyclical (construction).  So men have taken an especially heavy blow during this crisis.  The gap between the male and female unemployment rates has reached its highest level since the government began keeping such records.”

Brooks notes that “men who are unemployed for a significant amount of time are more likely to drink more, abuse their children more and suffer debilitating blows to their identity.  Unemployed men are not exactly the most eligible mates. . . .  For decades, men have adopted poorly to the shifting demands of the service economy.  Now they are paying the price.  The working class is in danger of descending into underclass-style dysfunction.  For decades, young people have been living in a loose, under-institutionalized world.  Now they are moving back home in droves.  We need to redefine masculinity” [my italics].  For the first time in American history, women will be holding down the majority of our jobs—besides being the primary caregivers, as daughters, mothers, and wives.

At the rate we’re moving, it can only get worse for men—and for the women who depend on them.

I do have some answers, but they are long-term and will be anything but easy to achieve.  There can be no quick fix to a problem of this magnitude!

I shall continue the dialogue on this issue with next Wednesday’s blog.

Stay tuned.

The Up-Side of Being Fired, Part Three

So what happens when we lose a job?  For starters, we come alive again.  It is no hyperbole to declare that it can be like coming out of a dark tunnel into blinding sunlight.  Once again we feel a part of the entire world – not just the claustrophobic four walls that had been our world previously.

Strangely enough, it can be exhilarating to get fired.  As painful as it is, job termination brings with it a species of euphoria: Wow!  At last I’m in charge – not someone else!  At last, I’m free to do anything I choose to do.  I can go wherever I want to go.

If another job does not follow in quick succession, it’s likely that thoughts such as these arise: You know, if I’m unemployed anyway, what do I have to lose if I finally follow that dream I’ve long felt could never be?  I wonder if I have it in me to really make it work?  So . . . if I really bend my mind to it, is it really possible I could pull off such a miracle?

Time after time, in history, it has been failure that has booted people out of their career ruts into pathways of their own making.

Belatedly, I’ve discovered in life that eventually God has a way of utilizing everything that has ever happened to us.  Every success, yes; but more significantly, every failure, every rabbit trail, every dead-end, every box-canyon, every detour, every crack-up, every disappointment, every infliction, every disillusion, every heartbreak – every last bit of it God mixes into the mortar with which we construct our lives.  At the end, we discover that God, behind the scenes, much like an elephant-keeper, has followed along behind us, scooping up the messes we leave behind, doing damage control, making the most of our mistakes, and gently herding us toward the light.

In my case, had it not been for my two firings, it’s extremely unlikely the ministry of our books – 71 and counting – would ever have been.  And it was only through the resulting anguish that I finally could really empathize with the suffering of others:

“It is only through our own sorrow that we come to understand the sorrow of others, only through our own weakness that we learn to pity the weaknesses of others, and only through our love and forgiveness that we can ever comprehend the infinite love and forgiveness of God.”

– Myrtle Reed, from A Spinner in the Sun