Why are you silent?

Why are people silent? The two clearest reasons: you either are trying to listen rather than speak, or you’ve got nothing to say.

I grimace when hearing the most common broadsides leveled against social media and communications. “What could I say in 140 characters?” “Who wants to know what I had for lunch?” Et cetera.

Can you imagine if people had had such lack of imagination 150 years ago? We would have let the telegraph rot. We have the means today to draw ourselves closer and share more intimately than ever before in history, and suddenly many of us seem to be struck mute.

Witness. Speak. Share. If you refuse to speak using the media of our time, it’ll be assumed in the future that it was because you didn’t have anything to say. That you didn’t have much to witness to. That maybe there just wasn’t much going on there—much soulfulness, much vitality, much life. (That won’t be a fair perspective, but the future often marginalizes the past and so it’s worth thinking about how to defeat its stereotypes while we still have time.)

I think about everything that my grandparents left behind in heirlooms and artifacts and especially in writing, and how my heart aches for the same sort of things but from every generation of my family over the past 200+ years in this country. How I wish I could read even the slimmest diary entries from my frontier ancestors and what their lives were like. I know some things from newspaper records, church records, etc. These aren’t particularly intimate things, but they’re something.

We have the means to speak and to be heard more simply than ever before.

Figure out what’s worth saying, and say it.


Complaining about your strengths

“Hey, great to see you. Nice hat.”

“Oh, it’s not new. Pretty old actually. I really need to get a new one.”

A better response?

“Thank you.”

I had this exchange almost verbatim recently. A simple compliment, given earnestly. But not well received, and instead turned into mild self pity.

How often we do this to ourselves. Turning our strengths into a weakness, and in effect complaining about a strength.

We don’t always conceive of the thing as a strength, though. Others often do, because they’re not in our doubt-filled heads. They just see the nice hat, and want to give a compliment.

Even when a strength is only perceived (rather than real), better to just go with it:

“Hey, thanks.”

THON and its consequences

Penn State’s IFC/Panhellenic Dance Marathon is happening this weekend. It’s known for being the largest single student-run philanthropic event in America.

Since 1973 it’s raised more than $100MM for the Four Diamonds Fund, which provides aid for children and families fighting pediatric cancer. It’s a great Penn State tradition, it’s a great community effort, and it’s often a genuinely life-changing experience for its participants.

A few years ago I sat down at the Rathskeller with an alum for lunch. We didn’t meet to talk shop on THON, but the conversation eventually turned to Greek Life and fraternities, which have been incredible developers of community life and growth for most of Penn State’s history. This alumnus presented a provocative thought on how to look at the future of Penn State’s Greek Life. I wasn’t in a fraternity in college (he was), so I’m sharing this mainly to think out loud and without knowing how much weight is worth putting behind my friend’s thinking.

The basic idea was this: THON has come to epitomize Greek identity, and so over the course of each year THON consumes an enormous amount of human, financial, and communal capital. All capital that each fraternity or sorority is spending within the Penn State community. And all capital that—at other universities—ends up being spent on the efforts of each fraternity’s or sorority’s national chapter philanthropies and efforts.

What this means is that Greek national associations are less pleased with their Penn State chapters than their peers (even though many of them raise more for THON than other university chapters raise for anything else) and this resentment manifests itself in that the national associations are less likely to strengthen, support, and defend their Penn State affiliates when they need reform, mentoring, or other assistance.

Again, this alum was a part of Greek life as a student and remains committed to it today. I was not a part of Greek Life. I’m presenting this here simply in the spirit of asking, “Is this a plausible explanation for why Penn State Greek Life might be doing more good than ever and yet finding itself weaker and less secure than ever?”

An obvious example of a national Greek organization abandoning its local chapter was the destruction of Phi Delta Theta a few years ago.

In downtown State College there are some 50 historic, beautiful mansions built by fraternities over the past century and a half. And while it seems few fraternities have retained their gentlemanly character, there is the chance for real and tangible loss to Penn State and the community if these houses (and more importantly, the young people within) are left to the fate of bureaucracy and national leadership whose vision seems to involve, in its best instances, tepid disinterest in leaving them to their own fate.

If the framework laid out to me by my friend is basically correct, it means that new systems of support, mentoring, and development for Greek Life needs to come from within the Penn State community, or else we risk the slow collapse of a system once responsible making so much of Penn State so great.


Spirit of ’76

That’s the spirit that I hope the soon-to-open Museum of the American Revolution in Old City, Philadelphia gives its visitors. I hope the place feels like its recreated little bits and pieces of Colonial America. I hope that it provides the context for visitors to understand one of the things that made the American Revolution so extraordinary: that it was a revolution to conserve inherited rights and liberties, and so to preserve a cherished way of life rather than an attempt to create some utopia from abstract principles.

The Museum opens in late April, though I don’t expect to visit until sometime this summer. Whether it fulfills all my own hopes or not, it will be good to have this Museum takes place among so many others in this city, and intentionally try to tell a story of the country’s founding capital that has just been so much a part of our history that it took us more than two centuries to think of creating a museum for it.

State College mayors

Earlier this week I got a text from a friend in State College who was in a Borough Council meeting. He had gotten word that Elizabeth Goreham, the town’s mayor, wouldn’t be running for a third term.

I was sort of surprised by this, if for no other reason that the mayor’s isn’t particularly old and she seems well liked by most people. Being State College’s mayor is one of those things you could do forever as a way to serve the common good. And it’s a nice part-time job, if nothing else.

I’ve only met Goreham a handful of times, and I know more about her during time as a member of the State College Borough Council than I do of her time as mayor. I knew more of Bill Welch, her predecessor in the mayor’s chair. Bill was one-time editor of the Centre Daily Times and a Borough Council member among many other things before his time as mayor. He was also a friend my friend to Ben Novak, and inspired him to write his mid-1980s beer columns that became the basis for The Birth of the Craft Brew Revolution.

Bill was just one of many of a whole generation that was still alive and active when I came into Happy Valley as a freshman in 2005, but who have mostly passed from the stage today. Their generation created and shaped so much of the contemporary Penn State and State College that we’ve inherited—theirs were memories that knew of the college campus before the Sexual Revolution, and knew a Penn State that was something much closer to a practical liberal arts school than the corporation it is today. Theirs was a generation in its prime during Penn State football’s national championship era, and seized  on Paterno’s vision to raise Penn State to new academic heights on the back of his player’s fame.

Theirs was a generation that built so many great things. It makes me wonder what our generation will be remembered for.

Last night Don Han announced his candidacy for mayor. I’ve met Don a few times. He’s got a good reputation, and works for my friend’s old law firm. He’s quoted saying:

“State College is a great town. Penn State is a stable and well-paying employment center, the downtown is vibrant, property values remain strong, and State College consistently earns high ratings for safety… However, the borough needs to protect the stability of its neighborhoods through a combination of zoning, ordinance enforcement, and owner-occupied housing initiatives, such as the Community Land Trust and the Homestead Investment Program.”

No doubt this is all important, but I wish we could speak more simply in local politics. The job of State College’s mayor is to preside over the beautiful rituals of the town, and to encourage it to become an even more beautiful and enchanted place.

That’s what Bill Welch did. It’s what Elizabeth Goreham has tried to do. And it’s what I hope Don Han does.


Philadelphia’s peripheries

I was driving through Philadelphia earlier today, specifically from my office on Logan Circle to the Schuylkill Expressway to get out of the city. I snapped this photo as I was waiting at a red light, about to merge onto the expressway.

The city is changing, most obviously with the near-topping-out of the latest Comcast tower to the far left. The Cira Center looms large on the right. Much more is planned and potentially starting this year on that side of the Schuylkill River in University City. Plenty of other large and smallish projects throughout Center City.

But I wonder how much is being done to create vibrant neighborhoods in other parts of the city. Not much, I suspect.

Places like Manayunk continue to thrive, but the poorest neighborhoods and those in transition like Brewerytown don’t seem to be developing coherent cultures of their own in the way a place like Manayunk has, or in the myriad ways that Center City enjoys from river to river.

The health of Philadelphia over the course of the long 21st century will be determined as much by the development of the cultures of these neighborhoods on the periphery as it will by the redevelopment and jobs available in Center City and West Philadelphia.

Fingers crossed.


Super Bowl 51

Incredible game last night. I wanted the Patriots to win, and boy was I surprised when they did. After the Patriots scored their first touchdown late in the third quarter and then failed on their extra point attempt, I wrote them off as a loser for the night. Tom Brady and the team hung together: record Super Bowl passing yards, a comeback from a record deficit scoring 31 unanswered points, first Super Bowl overtime. As a very casual NFL fan, it’s fun to see the Patriots secure their place as one of America’s great football dynasties.

Les Carpenter writes:

Before the Super Bowl winning drive Tom Brady stood on the Houston stadium’s field and said to his team-mates: “Let’s go.” And later, after the New England Patriots had won on the game’s final play and confetti tumbled over them their right tackle gushed: “He thrives on those moments.”

That was 13 years ago, on the night the Patriots won their second Super Bowl,which came in the same stadium, in a similar high-scoring game, won at the end by the Patriots on a drive led by Brady, who would be named MVP. Back then Brady was the 26-year-old quarterback who had won two titles in three years but wasn’t judged as the greatest at his position that the game had seen. That legacy would take more winning, more touchdowns and ultimately three more championships.

Now that he has won five Super Bowls, the most remarkable thing is how time has failed to take its toll on Brady. No quarterback at 39 makes storming through the final minutes of the Super Bowl look as easy as he did at 26. No quarterback has been as remarkably-consistent and dominant for two decades while players swirl in and out of the league around him.

A few days ago, Damon Huard – Brady’s backup on those first two championship teams – talked about returning to New England last fall for a celebration of that initial 2002 Super Bowl win and realizing that all but one of those Patriots had long retired. It was a jarring sensation for Huard, watching Brady that afternoon while assessing his own full post-football life.

“It’s just so hard in this job and profession to win,” Huard told the Guardian. “How they are still doing it is amazing. I was looking out there and I said to myself: ‘That’s No12 out there and it’s still [coach] Bill [Belichick] in the hoodie and they still have the drive and work ethic to make this happen.” …

But the 39-year-old Brady was not the carefree 26-year-old Brady. He fell to his knees after Sunday’s championship in a rare public expression of sensitivity. He talked around rumors that his mother has been seriously ill. He even struggled to remember what had happened in the game’s frantic last minutes, admitting: “There was a lot of shit that happened.”

Thirteen years after he took the Patriots to a championship on the same field, he became the only quarterback to win five Super Bowls. He also became the first to win four Super Bowl MVP awards. He gets older and nothing changes. He keeps winning. New England keeps winning.

It’s as if this all can go on forever.