The Great Unraveling

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“Unraveling” by Julie Pieper

This week I joined the reading group at the Sacramento Central Library. We are reading Moby Dick by Herman Melville. I have started this book many times but never finished. One of the participants made a reference to the ending and someone cried. “Don’t spoil it.” He reacted in disbelief. “Didn’t everyone have to read it in high school?” Nope, and in college I was assigned women’s literature and the Russians.

I’m so glad I didn’t read it until now because our book club is giving it a dimension I am certain would not have come up in any high school discussion. This may be the first postmodern novel as Melville challenges us to look at the whale from every perspective without judgement. In asking, “What is the whale?”, he’s also asking metaphysical questions:

  • Are whales sentient? Do they feel pain as we do? Can they seek revenge?
  • Is killing a whale for corsets and lamp oil a crime against nature?

Moby Dick has even more current day relevance as I read the New York Times Review of Books “National Delusions” by Hannah Rosin. Melville’s naming of the whaling ship the Pequod after an Indian tribe massacred by the Puritans is part of his overall critique of manifest destiny, capitalism and “civilization.” The myths we tell ourselves about that first Thanksgiving started the magical thinking that has culminated in the lying liars residing in the White House.

In Rosin’s review of Kurt Anderson’s 500-year history of the United States, Fantasyland, she writes: “Reading a great revisionist history of America is a bookish way to feel what it’s like to be born again. Suddenly past, present and future are connected by a visible thread. Stray details and aberrations start to make sense. You feel ashamed, but also enlightened, because at least you have the named the sin: You belong to a nation of blood thirsty colonizers (Howard Zinn), or anti-intellectuals (Richard Hofstadter) or, in Kurt Anderson’s latest opus, a people who have committed themselves over the last half century to florid, collective delusion.”

Those Puritans who massacred the Pequod are the same who vowed to hang any Quaker or Catholic who landed on their shores (and did). But we remember them as peacefully breaking bread with their Indians saviors and seeking freedom of religion. The long list of conspiracy theorists, survivalists, cults, and more that followed are part of an long American tradition. It’s not what you do, it is what your publicist says you do.

Apparently at the end of Fantasyland, Anderson tries to redraw a boundary: “You’re entitled to your own opinions and your own fantasies, but not your own facts–especially if your fantastical facts hurt people.” This may not be sufficient to save us. Rosin asks if anyone has anything more powerful, like a story powerful enough to call us back from our collective delusion.

Perhaps nature, who we’ve been at war with also since the beginning of our country, will have the last word. The Koch Brothers have purchased the Republican Parties fealty on “no such thing as climate change” but the recent forest fires and mega-storms really don’t care what the party plank is. Hurricane Harvey is real. In the end if reality doesn’t wake us up from our collective dream, then maybe we don’t deserve to survive.

What’s in a Name?

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Gwen Amos, “Dark Angel”

I’ve recently reread Madeleine L’Engle’s Wrinkle in Time series. In the second book, A Wind at the Door, the young heroine Meg teams up with a cherubim to pass three tests. He explains to Meg that she is a Namer. In fact, all of us who are on the side of good in the world are Namers. Those who are on the side of the Echthroi, or the chaos, evil and war in the world are “un-namers.” In this story they can X creation out, including stars, thus creating tears in the universe.

Meg’s plight resonated with me because I love naming things–pets, children, artwork–and yet there is a big responsibility that goes along with it. In naming something or someone we are calling out what something truly is or who they are meant to be (except the Jack Russell Terrorizer down the block whose name is Angel). In the Genesis story (Chapter 2) God brings his creation to mankind for him to name them. This story tells us that this is our first “job” on earth.

Recently in the USA we’ve all been roiled by the specter of American nazis, white supremacists and other hate groups openly demonstrating their dark beliefs. Some are trying to normalize them by calling them Alt-right groups and making them parallel to so-called “Alt Left” groups. There is one group that sometimes uses violence called Antifa and this stands for “Anti-fascists,” which is not on the same moral plane as someone who is racist and is comfortable celebrating political ideologies that lead to genocide.

Alas our skill at naming things to be what they truly are is getting so out of practice that many people are confused. As Marilyn Chandler McIntyre points out in her book Caring for Words in a Culture of Lies, “the deceptions we particularly seem to want are those that comfort, insulate, legitimate and provide ready excuses for inaction.” (p 57) Because if your electoral power depends on those who view the other as less than fully human, then you need some way to justify not standing up to #45 and others who give them credibility.

These are perilous times. This morning Pastor Frank preached on Matthew 16: 13-20 when Jesus asks the disciples, “who do you say I am?” He began by calling our community of faith to be clear that there are white supremacists and nazis mobilizing in our country today. It does no good to equivocate and call them something else. Just as it does no good as a person of faith to call Jesus “Elijah” or “John the Baptist.” We must recognize the power of the living God to have the Spirit’s help in discerning what is real and what is comfortable deceit.

What strikes me as particularly confounding is the evangelical “Christian” churches belief that they are persecuted for their faith in the USA. This fear that someone is about to keep them from saying “Merry Christmas” must keep them from examining what real persecution looks like. Just listen to this story on NPR.org about Esther who was kidnapped by the Boko Haram and enslaved for sex and hard housework. (The Lament of the Boko Haram ‘Brides’ August 27, 2017) When she was caught worshipping Jesus, she was beaten and her life threatened. When we call having to live alongside people of other faiths as “persecution” we cheapen what it really means to people of faith around the world.

Let’s be impeccable with our words. And give no allowances to those who are not.

#MarchforScience: Why I March

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Mom and I marched in Sacramento on Earth Day 2017

These remarks were prepared for a panel presentation at St John’s Lutheran Church on Earth Sunday April 23, 2017.

I am trained as a political scientist and work in California water policy on the big questions of how to keep water flowing to 40 million people and 7.9 million acres of irrigated farmland whilst sustaining native threatened and endangered species.

The water policy discussions I have been a part of are gaining in sophistication and specialization. Policy makers are relying on science more and more; demanding real time data to make decisions about daily water operations. This is driven in large part by environmental regulation: the California Environmental Protection Act, the Clean Water Act, and the Endangered Species Act, to name a few.

As a result, there is a growing gap between the voting public’s understanding of the issues and the amount of technical information used to decide if water will be released from, say Shasta reservoir, or pumped at Tracy and so forth. This is eroding trust in decision-making processes and is part of the larger story of distrust of experts and anti-intellectualism in the US today.

Political scientists study power: for example, how it is held and exercised, and how tradeoffs are brokered. The story of the state of California can be told in the story of water rights, land use battles entwined with water, and battles for control of water. Whether water is absent in drought or over abundant in floods, Californians have debated water policy for its entire modern existence.

In the first half of the 20th century, civil engineers were the heroes of the story as they built the reservoirs, canals and pumping plants of the Central Valley Project and the State Water Project, plus the flood control structures of levees and bypasses. That generation’s gifts have allowed us to rapidly grow economically with both cheap hydroelectric power and relatively cheap and abundant water.

In the second half of the 20th century the chemists and the ecologists began to play a more prominent role in the story. We demanded better water quality, and sewage treatment, and we became aware of the damage we were doing to the environment by disrupting natural ecosystems–95% of the floodplain is gone; almost as much of the wetlands and vernal pools are gone.

In my work I am always looking for more information to better understand the challenges and to look for solutions to the conflicts that continually arise over water. I look to knowledge gained through science. I also look to what I call “native wisdom” from people who have worked or lived on the land for much longer—in some instances before we developed the water systems we have today. Wisdom can come in many forms.

Humility is invaluable especially humbly acknowledging what we do not know whether it is in the field of science or while reading my Bible. I also appreciate the times when the Holy Spirit inspired actions or ideas in my work.

When I became a Christian in the 1970s, the evangelical Presbyterian Church I attended was full of engineers and doctors. Over time, as the church became more and more certain or rigid about faith matters, I felt increasingly alienated. I thought then and now that since God gave me an intellect, it is my vocation to use it in ways that make the world in better alignment with the way God calls us to live and with reverence for God’s creation.

Scientists and persons of faith need not be mutually exclusive—listening to debates amongst scientists about salmon habitat has convinced me that there is as much faith in action amongst scientists arguing their theories as there is among theologians.

And in my experience there isn’t a conflict between the stories in the Bible and the truths that social science and physical science discover, because I do not always interpret God’s wisdom in the Bible literally nor do I swallow whole every hypotheses posed by scientists.

I have learned there are many ways to understanding reality and much mystery remains. This is true if you are trying to understand the mind of God, human behavior or determine the needs of Delta Smelt.

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One sign read “GOP, Science Doesn’t Care What You Believe”

My friend and retired science teacher Michael Bickford recently posted this on his Facebook page: “All humans are qualified to be scientists! Many people misunderstand what science is. It’s a way of defining, knowing and understanding truth. We use the truth (facts) in turn, like a tool, to determine the nature of reality and then, individually and collectively through communication, the meaning and direction of our lives together.”

Michael is a self-proclaimed atheist. And he is as hostile to the Church as some evangelicals are to science. In fact he wrote: “(Science is) under attack by those with alternatives systems of defining the truth.” In my experience it need not be a battle. While we may not seek the truth with the same methods, we are all truth seekers.

For the person of faith I would ask: why must God have created the earth in a literal 6 days for creation to be divinely awesome and amazing? And for the scientist who may be an atheist or agnostic, why is it threatening to leave room in the equation for the divine?

Leaders Say I’m Sorry

Or do they? Thinking about the “Leaders Say…” series, I brainstormed topics and wrote down “I’m sorry” without a second thought. There has been a fair amount of criticism of 45 because he seems incapable of admitting a mistake or giving a sincere apology. But do we really see an apology as a sign of leadership or as a sign of weakness?

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About once a year a Japanese CEO makes a very public apology on behalf of his organization’s failings. My friend Keiko Sakurai is an expert on cross-cultural business practices as a consultant for Aperian Global. I skyped with her to learn more about apologies from her experience.

She graduated from UC Berkeley’s Haas Management program after working in Japan. In her first role with a U.S. team her supervisor gave her feedback that she was apologizing too much. “In Japan saying you are sorry is a social lubricant; we say it all the time in social and business situations.” It is expected especially from people with less status to people with more status, consultants to clients, and peer to peer.

In Japan if an organization makes a mistake and does not publicly apologize, it is perceived they will pay a price in public opinion. This does prompt some superficial apologies and we agreed these probably do not restore much trust. And behind every apology is a desire to repair a relationship and to begin to restore trust. Apologies, in our experience, work most effectively when they are specific and sincere and are undermined when accompanied by justifications.

We were troubled that we could not think of more examples of a US leader effectively apologizing. Keiko related a story from a workshop she led with participants from several cultures. She posed a situation: Your boss and team are giving a presentation to potential clients when you realize the boss is presenting old pricing information. What would you do?

–Pause and think of your response.—Read on.

I thought of a team I work with where we share mutual respect and I replied, “I would say, excuse me, I am so sorry there is more recent pricing information and I did not update this slide. Please let me share the most up to date pricing.” Keiko shared this is what the participant from Korea said they would do. Whereas the participant from Japan said they would call for a break and then pull aside the boss to point out the mistake and then they could introduce the information after the break saying they just got a call or email from the Head Office.”

What did the participant from the USA say? He would interject and state the facts objectively, without apology or blaming anyone, “There is more recent pricing available.” And offer a new slide. Or, he qualified his response, if he was competing with his boss and gunning for his position, he would actually point out to the client that the Boss made the critical mistake, and he will stand up and take over the presentation with the correct information, causing the boss to lose face. .

All I could say was, “Wow!”

Keiko explained that in Asian culture there is much more interest in maintaining harmony and people are more willing to put the organization’s needs ahead of their individual aspirations than in the USA.

I wondered how research says about on apologies and in a recent Washington Post article journalist Jena McGregor assembled a nifty summary. She found that the research is not totally clear.

  • Harvard Business School professor Francisca Gino finds that apologizing is generally beneficial for leaders, with even superfluous, unnecessary apologies leading to greater trust. If an apology is botched or if the leaders isn’t trustworthy, then there may be downsides and may be seen as backing down from a dispute.
  • Researchers from Queen’s University in Canada tested whether apologizing was a sign of weakness. They surveyed hockey coaches and referees as well as other lab experiments, and they found generally, those who apologized were seen as more “transformational.” Rather than weak these leaders were perceived as having the ability to inspire, motivate and challenge their followers.
  • Research has also shown that apologizing is associated with better psychological well-being among a boss’s employees and for themselves.
  • In another study, CEOs who show expressions of sadness on their faces when they issued public apologies were viewed as more remorseful and their customers tended to be more willing to do business with them in the future.

On the flip-side, there are some who do perceive apologies as weak, an admission of responsibility, or accepting blame. And in the US litigious culture often leads to non-apology, apologies. “Writing in the Washington Post in late 2015, political scientist Richard Hanania said that people, particularly men, who don’t ‘back down in the face of controversy [show] confidence by not giving in to social pressure, and [take] a risk refusing to follow the conventional path. Some on the right openly suggest that part of Trump’s appeal lies in his refusal to apologize and his unwillingness to be ‘politically correct’.”

Keiko and I met through CTI Co-Active Leadership training where we learned how to “stay and recover” when we make mistakes as leaders, when we are attacked, or when events do not unfold as intended. Sometimes we need to “repair” with colleagues—a boss, a direct report or a customer. A repair is just what it sounds like—doing what is needed to restore the relationship. In our experience, apologies have strengthened trust in relationships and have served our leadership well.

In closing, let’s look at the McGregor’s checklist for an apology to be effective: “an expression of regret and an explanation of what went wrong to an acknowledgement of responsibility, a statement of repentance, and request for forgiveness.”

Leaders Say Thank You

I am stumped why so few leaders pause to say thank you. Maybe even saying “pause” is part of the problem. You can move forward toward your stake faster when people feel appreciated and included. Saying a sincere and thoughtful thank you in person is terrific. I also like a written note because as a recipient I can read it again and again. So few leaders say thank you in an intentional way.

In California Agricultural Leadership program we were taught to say a sincere and personalized thank you (sometimes with a gift) to people who gave to our program through teaching, speaking, or with financial gifts. I was not surprised when my end of year gift to the Foundation was followed within a month or so by a Thank you example from the Board Chair. I give to lots of different organizations and causes. Most feel that their autogenerated “thank you” with receipt is sufficient. The personal notes or typed letters I receive from the California Agricultural Leadership Foundation binds my loyalty to them as donor.

Last night  I hosted Taylor and Lauren from the Concordia University Irvine women’s choir. They performed beautifully at St John’s Lutheran Church and then I took them home and provided them hospitality. We had a delightful conversation, walked to get coffee and tea and Weatherstone coffeehouse, and they got a good night’s sleep. Twelve hours later I was dropping them off with very little inconvenience to me and yet they took the time to write a beautiful hand written note and leave it on the guest bed (that they made!). A handwritten note is the gold standard for expressing appreciation.

Is this leadership or just being a polite person? I encourage you to think of it as a critical part of leadership. Just ask yourself how much you appreciate when your boss or client recognizes your contribution and thanks you. For ideas about how to do this most effectively, listen to Episode 9 of Radical Candor podcast.  They emphasize the importance of being specific and sincere.

Most Impactful Books of 2016

I am enjoying reading the lists of books, podcasts, and movies that people compile at the end of the year. People’s tastes are idiosyncratic, so I figure if I find one or two things that are new and interest me then it was worth the time reading their list. Whilst reading the New York Times Book Review survey of writers and their favorites of 2016, I found quite a few new things to read in 2017 (more on that at the end).

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Three journals from 2016 and my current composition book… on my desk in winter’s light.

The challenge is always remembering what I have read in Q1 or Q2. This is why I write down the titles in my journal. Please allow me a moment to pause and say a word on behalf of journaling. I have been writing in a personal journal for most of my life. Okay, so when I was in third grade I called it a diary and it had a key that I lost somewhere over the years. Sometimes they devolve into a book of lists. Sometimes I take notes on a particularly moving podcast or documentary or copy passages from a book.

I also use composition notebooks for work. I learned this technique from Dr. Henry Vaux at the University of California. It is easier to look for notes based on the timeline of meetings and associations than to keep them in separate files by topic. When I begin a new comp book, I tear out a few of the most important pages from the old one and tuck them in the back. I hang on to the old one for about a month and then shred it because I find I rarely go back to find information. It is more important as a tool in the moment–writing helps me process information and improves my memory. I never understand the people who never write down a single word in a meeting. How can they relinquish so much power?

Back to the book list! I know a book has impacted me greatly when I give it as gifts to one or more people. So while Toni Morrison said that Ta-Nehisi Coates’ book Between the World and Me was a must read, I couldn’t stop thinking about Caring for Words in a Culture of Lies by Marilyn Chandler McEntyre. I gave it to 3 people and I have one more copy to give away.

I participated in the Jane Austen Reading Group that meets at the McClatchy library in Sacramento. I read two books that I shared with others:  Paula Byrne’s The Real Jane Austen: a life in small things, and William Deresiewicz’s A Jane Austen Education. This almost made up for the other months when I had to read the muck that passes as Jane Austen tributes, mysteries, etc.

Lynne Twist came to Sacramento to speak at our church and to nonprofit leaders about The Soul of Money. I reread her book and gave several copies to others to encourage them to attend her presentations. You have to be ready to hear the message. I know I didn’t cotton to her ideas the first time I read it. I just recently watched the documentary Minimalism on Netflix, and while it touches on a lot of topics shallowly, I still found it compelling.

Thanks to the podcast On Being, I discovered some new writers including David Whyte. I shared chapters of his book with friends and colleagues and used them as the focal points of discussions. One discussion of “boids” in The Heart Aroused led to reading the 1992 book Complexity by M. Mitchell Waldrup. I found so many of the ideas about complexity theory of interest to the challenges of managing a megaproject that I shared copies with our team before we went on holiday break.

One of the books that moved me most profoundly was Carla Power’s If the Oceans Were Ink about the modern Muslim faith. It really helped me fill in a giant gap in my knowledge and to see similarities to my faith in Jesus. I want to know more.

What is in my pile to read in 2017? Waking Up White by Debby Irving; Lit by Mary Karr; Evicted by Matthew Desmond, Tribe by Sebastian Junger; Lafayette in the Somewhat United States by Sarah Vowell. There are more on my wish list: Ann Pachett’s Commonwealth, and Colson Whitehead’s Underground Railroad.

One final note, Brene Brown’s book Rising Strong had a real impact on me at the time I read it. And then the nastiness of the election overwhelmed the public space and now the world just doesn’t feel safe enough to be vulnerable except among friends and trusted colleagues. I still believe that Brown’s work on shame and vulnerability is hugely important in our world today. So if you haven’t read it yet: give yourself a New Year treat and download or pick it up today.

I Need to Lament Right Now

rob-bellI started listening to Rob Bell’s podcast during my newscation since the election. The Lamentations mini series from May is just right for right now.

The book of Lamentations is 5 poems in the middle of the Bible that express the human experience. It was written after the devastation of Jerusalem about 500 BC.  As Rob Bell explains “When you suffer, literal language often fails you.” Lamentation poems use images to express what they are feeling.

Here are a few Bell statements from the first of five episodes:

“Lamentations is naming what is wrong–naming the pain and giving expression to the injustice.”

“If you are lamenting you are still alive. You are still in the game.”

“To lament is to refuse to be silent. Rip open your rib cage and let it out. To expose and name whatever is out of order in God’s world.”

In the US we live in a culture that denies reality. We invest in plastic surgery to deny time and aging. We keep quiet when we should blow the roof off this thing. Lamenting may disrupt things because to lament is to feel your full humanity.

In all of the people of the book faiths there are people who teach extreme quietism, that is we need not do anything but pray because God/Allah is in control. And you could interpret Lamentations as a way to pray through your anger. I respectfully disagree. Prayer is essential. And public lamentation is also important to give expression to the suffering at a societal level. This is why I support the Black Lives Matter movement, and I am spending my time and money to participate in the Women’s March on Washington to affirm women’s power.

And if you are a Christian who celebrates Advent, consider this modern Lamentation-like devotional.