Friendship with a place

We intuitively know that maintains friendship matters. A better way to say that: being a friend matters.

Being friends happens in places. It’s for this reason that I think maintaining friendship with places matters, too. There’s a bit of dialogue in C.S. Lewis’s “Space Trilogy” that has stuck with me since first reading it a few years ago:

And in that seeping inner silence of which his face bore witness, one might have believed that he listened continually to a murmur of evasive sounds: rustling of mice and stoats, thumping progression of frogs, the small shock of falling hazel nuts, creaking of branches, runnels trickling, the very growing of grass. The bear had closed its eyes. The whole room was growing heavy with a sort of floating anæsthesia. …

Dr. Ransom: “…that cannot be done any longer. The soul has gone out of the wood and water. Oh, I daresay you could awake them; a little. But it would not be enough. A storm, or even a river flood would be of little avail against our present enemy. Your weapon would break in your hands.”

These are differing attitudes toward place; differing attitudes born of different times from characters in a book that definitely deserves reading. It’s much tougher to hear the murmur of evasive sounds, the rustling, the floating anesthesia that makes a place special and distinctive. It’s much easier to imagine that place doesn’t matter, and to train ourselves to be blind or deaf to the realities of a place.

Mike the Mailman

I’ll be visiting Penn State and State College tomorrow for the first time in more than six months, and am returning to some Happy Valley-themed things. John Patishnock wrote a while ago on Mike Herr, better known as “Mike the Mailman.”

Mike’s an example of someone who loves what he does. He’s the sort of person who brings electricity into any room he enters, and is so genuine that it’s also jarring the first time you meet him. I had dinner with him two years ago in Harrisburg, and he acted as if I were the only person in the world worth talking to at a table filled with more important people. John Patishnock writes:

The Penn State men’s ice hockey team had an open midnight practice last year at Pegula Ice Arena, and I was there. It was pretty exciting, seeing the rink light up as the Nittany Lions and coach Guy Gadowsky interacted with the fans and gave everyone a preview. As I was standing on the concourse, I saw Mike, decked out in a hockey jersey, make his way up the steps of the student section to get a better view.

Mike seemed just as excited in that moment as every student was a few weeks later on opening night, and it made me smile, seeing someone who’s lived here his entire life who still seems to be enjoying himself and everything Penn State has to offer.

Some people make any event more special and memorable by his or her mere presence. Mike is one of these people. He has the patience of a saint and the demeanor of a soft-spoken rock star, if such a juxtaposition exists.

Mike often wonders why so many people make such a big deal out of him. My take? It’s because in a world where everyone feels compelled to update Twitter every 20 minutes and post every event of his or her life on Instagram, he doesn’t have a personal email account or Facebook page. He doesn’t post his status online. Instead, Mike greets everyone who enters the post office with the same courtesy and graciousness. It turns out that stuff still matters to some people.

I also thought this comment from John’s column is worth looking at for a minute:

Thousands of students new to State College have credited Mike for making Penn State seem a little more comforting after moving away from home for the first time.

It’s so rare to find people who are genuine, and whose love for life is so obvious that it brightens your day and can help lessen some of the alienation of moving to a new place like college. Mike is a treasure because he has that effect in Happy Valley.

Yesterday’s Penn State predictions

One of my favorite programs at Penn State is the Penn State Forum speaker series, which hosts a slate of speakers each year on a diversity of topics. Joel Myers, CEO of AccuWeather (and a longtime trustee) delivered a talk a few years ago that I recently rewatched.

It’s “The Digital Revolution: Transforming Higher Education.” The first few minutes aren’t new for anyone who’s under 40 (i.e., “Kids today can find things online that used to require a trip to the library and hours of searching), but Joel gets into some compelling data from roughly the 14-20 minute mark. Most of the remainder stresses the reasons that colleges and universities might not be able to avoid the creative destruction facing them from technology and things like self-paced/competency based learning.

Interestingly, Joel forecasts a coming end to rising tuition and even expects it to decrease. (We’ve seen that born out at least in some schools, including Penn State’s tuition freeze announced last year.) Some of the points that struck me:

  • Over the past 40 years, the number of students has tripled, college costs in constant dollars has more than tripled, and revenues of American universities adjusted for inflation have increased 9-fold;
  • recent Bain study found that 1/3 of colleges “not on a sustainable financial path;”
  • an additional 28 percent are “at risk of slipping into an unstable condition;”
  • “means that 61% of institutions have negative prospects for the future even before disruptive changes from technological revolution come on strongly;”
  • Moody’s downgraded its financial outlook for colleges and universities, “giving entire sector a negative grade”

I think there are some particularly solid concluding points starting at the 35 minute mark, where Joel gets in to what entrepreneurial approaches and market-influenced pedagogy might look like. It’s one thing to talk speculatively about how different digital devices or platforms might play a role in learning from a tactical perspective, but it’s another to explore more of a systemwide approach.

“Tuition, education loans, and government funding will stop increasing, and may actually decline year after year,” Joel says. “Finding new revenue sources to partially replace them, and ways to excel despite lower revenues, is essential.”

Blasts

“We’ll let our supporters know about this issue with an email blast, and we’ll follow up by pushing the news out across all our social streams.” This is how people talk now.

We once mailed letters to the fellow members of our organization, or our political group, or whatever. Now we issue “blasts.” We once shared curious or important news with our peers. Now we “push it out.” We once had cherished sources for our information diets. Now we’ve got “streams.”

When all these new phrases come together in a single sentence, we become ugly.

How we speak reveals to a degree how we think, and I think there’s little attractive about a person who treats his members or friends as people to “blast” with something. We sometimes blast prisoners with cold showers from a hose. We would never “blast” our friends. Yet we speak about them as if we would, and as if we’d be doing them a favor.

A truly great gift, whether a bit of news or just an anecdote or joke, isn’t “pushed out.” It’s shared, or revealed, or given one-on-one. Can we imagine a news anchor speaking cavalierly about “pushing out” the news about the death of some boy in the city that day? Nothing worth sharing should be “pushed out,” as if the audience is a conglomeration of laborers in a sweatshop assembly line.

We have libraries, curate information, peer review research, and archive our files all because we’re dealing with real things. The Library of Congress would be nearly worthless (as would have the Library at Alexandria for that matter) if it served as a “stream” rather than a library. No one leaves important things in “streams.” We remove them from streams and put them into narratives and stories that have coherence and can shape our lives. The entire point of journalism is to rescue disconnected facts from the ether and illuminate them in the light of a sensible narrative that moves the reader to comprehension. Moses, of all people, was saved from a stream.

In our new communications spaces people talk in this mutilated kind of language. We need humane words. We need to be human—to correspond with our members, to share great developments, and to think about our new media presence not as a stream, but as a home.

Or we can keep blasting each other right up until the moment we’re so desensitized that we decide that none of it matters.

When streets come alive

I came across Cheryl Dunn’s Everybody Street unexpectedly. It’s an ode to New York photographer Alfred Stieglitz’s impact:

During the early decades of the twentieth century, Alfred Stieglitz vividly captured the architecture and urban streetscapes of New York City. The first photographer to take the camera off the tripod, out of the studio, and into the streets, Stieglitz can be thought of as the father of New York City street photography – a genre that produced some of the most exciting and provocative images of the past fifty years.

I first listened to, and later watched the video of, Joel Meyerowitz describe how he came into the medium. His testimony and the audio production of his narrative is so elegant. If I was asked to offer an example of what makes radio a great medium, this clip would be a candidate. You can hear life bubbling through in his voice

Knights of Columbus, Third Degree

About this time last year I wrote about joining Knights of Columbus, which I did by taking the first of three degrees through the Fr. McCafferty Council #11013 in Bucks County. About midway through last year I transferred to the Fr. John E. Doyle Council #9715 in Montgomery County.

I’d like to join somewhere in Philadelphia, but there aren’t any groups there yet. For the foreseeable future, I’m happy to be a member where I am and contribute. Small things; probably helping them relaunch their website and enable online payments.

About the three degrees: the first degree is focused on charity, the second is focused on unity, and the third on fraternity. Each are pillars of the Knights, and principles that help bring together millions of members in their local communities.

There’s a fourth degree, which is focused on patriotism. I don’t plan to take the fourth degree, for three reasons: it involves separate obligations and dues on a regional level I’m not interested in committing to, it involves dressing up in complicated garb, and I’m already committed to becoming active in some way with the Sons of the American Revolution.

I took my second degree in December in Norristown, and my third degree today in Upper Darby. It’s a great organization, bringing together regular men to do worthwhile work. I’m happy to be a part of it.

Scalia

I was scrolling through Twitter a few hours ago when I saw the breaking news that Antonin Scalia died in his sleep last night.

In June 2010, Justice Scalia gave the commencement address at Langley High School, where his granddaughter was graduating. In a few paragraphs he captures why so many admired him; not for any particular policy or political position, but really for just the opposite—at the height of American power, he embraced thoughtful self-restraint:

[A] platitude I want discuss comes in many flavors. It can be variously delivered as, ‘Follow your star,’ or ‘Never compromise your principles.’ Or, quoting Polonius in ‘Hamlet’ — who people forget was supposed to be an idiot — ‘To thine ownself be true.’ Now this can be very good or very bad advice. Indeed, follow your star if you want to head north and it’s the North Star. But if you want to head north and it’s Mars, you had better follow somebody else’s star. …

“And indeed, to thine ownself be true, depending upon who you think you are. It’s a belief that seems particularly to beset modern society, that believing deeply in something, and following that belief, is the most important thing a person could do. Get out there and picket, or boycott, or electioneer, or whatever. I am here to tell you that it is much less important how committed you are, than what you are committed to. If I had to choose, I would always take the less dynamic, indeed even the lazy person who knows what’s right, than the zealot in the cause of error. He may move slower, but he’s headed in the right direction.

“Movement is not necessarily progress. More important than your obligation to follow your conscience, or at least prior to it, is your obligation to form your conscience correctly. Nobody — remember this — neither Hitler, nor Lenin, nor any despot you could name, ever came forward with a proposal that read, ‘Now, let’s create a really oppressive and evil society.’ Hitler said, ‘Let’s take the means necessary to restore our national pride and civic order.’ And Lenin said, ‘Let’s take the means necessary to assure a fair distribution of the goods of the world.’

“In short, it is your responsibility, men and women of the class of 2010, not just to be zealous in the pursuit of your ideals, but to be sure that your ideals are the right ones. That is perhaps the hardest part of being a good human being: Good intentions are not enough. Being a good person begins with being a wise person. Then, when you follow your conscience, will you be headed in the right direction.”

Soylent

I’ve been meaning to try Soylent for a while, but the idea of mixing powder and having a half dozen trinkets in a drawer to mix everything together was too much. Soylent 2.0, the ready-to-drink version, looked good to go. If Soylent could really function as liquid food, I thought it could definitely become a part of my diet.

Eventually got around to subscribing to the 12/month package for $29/month, and it arrived from a Central Pennsylvania facility a few days ago. A lot has been said about the taste, which I actually like quite a bit. I was surprised, frankly, given how strongly some people are in their indifference or outright dislike. Very reminiscent of oatmeal, but with a smoother consistency.

Anyway, I’m planning to keep the monthly subscription and make these my lunch. I’ll write more on this at some point, whether it sticks, etc.

Investing in a place

Alan Jacobs writes on “the problem of modern identity” by telling the story of Miss Marple in Agatha Christie’s A Murder is Announced. In short:

“… Every village and small country place is full of people who’ve just come and settled there without any ties to bring them. The big houses have been sold, and the cottages have been converted and changed. And people just come — and all you know about them is what they say of themselves.” All you know about them is what they say of themselves — this is, in a nutshell, one of the core problems of modernity.

In a flat world, place matters more than ever. I really believe this, and I think explains why we still invest so much meaning in living where we live, whether it’s New York, San Francisco, or somewhere in the great unwashed middle.

In many ways I think we’re living through the triumph of libertarianism. We can mostly move to wherever we want and we can create the story about our lives we want to tell. We can live as we’d like, as free from any meaningful judgment from the local pastor—who doesn’t really know us—as we can from our neighbors, with whom we have equally vague relationships.

We’re proud of living in New York, but we know no New Yorkers, so to speak. We don’t become New Yorkers by living there; New Yorkers are people from New York. If we moved there, at what point are we from there?

I think one way to answer that is that we’re from a place when we become truly familiar with it; intimate in our knowledge of its history, its strange and defining characteristics, its prominent families and the disputes that have shaped the place, and the hopes with which the soil of a place has been fused with the glow of meaning that attracted us to it in the first place.

Narberth

It was snowing last night in Narberth, Pennsylvania, and I stopped on the way to the train to snap this photo on the main street. The snow was cinematic, failing in that slow and gentle way, laying thick and wet. No accompanying breeze or heavy wind, and a muted landscape that heightens your sense of the flakes.